The good thing about the fiscal madness that’s gripped the GOP is that it creates a good, clarifying moment for progressives. The president and congressional Democratic leaders have repeatedly announced a policy of refusing to negotiate over a debt limit extension, on grounds that (a) the economic stakes involved in messing around with this are just too high, dwarfing in importance anything either side could “win,” and (b) the debt limit accommodates existing debt from previous spending, and thus is not an appropriate vehicle for changing spending or taxes. (It would have been nice had the president taken this position back in 2011, but better late than never).
It is of great importance that Obama, Pelosi and Reed not flinch from this position, no matter what. This is a point on which all progressives, regardless of how they feel about specific fiscal issues, ought to be able to agree. Indeed, this is of particular importance to Democratic “centrists” who might be tempted to agree with this or that detail of the debt limit bill Boehner is putting together–say, approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which is insanely popular in certain parts of the midwest, or greater means-testing in Medicare. Once Democrats head down the road of discussing any of these concessions in exchange for allowing the economy to continue to function, the hostage-takers in the GOP will have won, perhaps for good.
Matt Yglesias argues that negotiating over the debt limit this time would represent a vast abandonment of responsibility by the president:
Republicans are essentially asking for an end to constitutional government in the United States and its replacement by a wholly novel system….
Things like this do happen. The British system of government used to feature a ruling monarch who was checked in limited ways by two houses of parliament. Over time, those houses of parliament leveraged their control over tax hikes into overall control of the government. On a somewhat slower time frame, the elected House of Commons nudged the House of Lords out of almost all of its de facto political power. And that’s the House’s proposal here. The president should become an elected figurehead (not dissimilar to the elected presidents of Germany, Israel, or Italy) whose role is simply to assent to the policy preferences of the legislative majority.
That’s the logic of bargaining over the debt ceiling, because this isn’t really a bargain at all. A bargain is when Obama wants something the GOP doesn’t want (universal preschool, say) and then the GOP says “look we’ll do it, but only if you do X, Y, and Z for us.” Increasing the debt ceiling isn’t like that. It isn’t a pet policy priority of Obama’s and it isn’t something House Republicans oppose. It’s something both sides agree is necessary to avert a legal and financial disaster.
Matt goes on to point out that today’s demands are attributable to Obama’s failure to take the same position in 2011. Then, at least, one could make the argument that both parties were very interested in taking steps to reduce long-term deficits and debt. Now it’s reasonably clear the Republican agenda is to permanently shrink government, to overturn the duly enacted Affordable Care Act and nullify the Supreme Court decision and the presidential election that kept it in place, and to prove once and for all that most intransigent brand of “constitutional conservatism” can work politically. To the extent that both parties claim to care about the economy, there is no one, not even debt default enthusiasts, who think wrangling over the debt limit is going to be good for the economy.
So the answer to this vicious “opening bid” from Boehner needs to be “no,” not “maybe” or “maybe something else.” If no negotiations occur, then there is a reasonably high probability that the GOP’s corporate allies will make Boehner walk the plank and cooperate with House Democrats to pass a “clean” debt limit increase. That’s actually the only sane way out of the dark place Boehner is leading the country towards right now.