Wednesday, September 18, 2013

No, Debt Ceiling Standoffs Aren't Unprecedented

"You have never in the history of the United States seen the threat of not raising the debt ceiling to extort a president or a governing party." -- President Barack Obama, Sept. 18, at the Business Roundtable
Obama's statement is sorta like saying fish are always found in the water -- it's mostly true and helpful without being literally true. (Some fish live most of their lives on the land.)

In this case, the problem with Obama's statement is a past Congress has demanded concessions from a past president--and the president gave in. A little bit.

It gets lost a bit in the shadow of the much more serious budget showdown of '95, but there was also a debt ceiling showdown in '96. You had the same ingredients--blustery ultimatums and calls for drastic government cuts.

But ultimately, the Republicans were bought pretty cheap. In March of 1996 a debt ceiling hike was passed, which included two items from the Contract for America, including the Congressional Review Act, which made it a tad easier for Congress to strike down executive branch regulations. (You can read more about this here.)

You could argue that the latter part was just some window dressing to make the Republicans' capitulation, after their threats, taste better going down.

But regardless, those were things which limited the executive branch's power, and which Clinton would not have otherwise agreed to. In other words, it was a concession.

This is more important than it sounds, because it has become an item of faith among brainy progressive types that Obama's biggest mistake as president so far was to "legitimize" Republicans' strategy of using the debt ceiling as a bargaining tool, by agreeing to a bargain at all.

The idea is, for all of American history raising the debt ceiling -- which allows the government to borrow to pay for spending already appropriated -- was just a matter of routine, accompanies with some Kabuki theatrics. But the Tea Party-crazed Republican House of Representatives in 2011 used the threat of an economic apocalypse to try to achieve its agenda. And Obama, insanely, gave in, ensuring that the debt ceiling would forever remain a political tool......a grenade both parties will use to achieve their precious goodies, and which, inevitably, will one day go off.

Or at least that's the theory. And each unsatisfactory deal Obama hammers out is yet more proof of how bad his strategy is. If you've got it in your head that your favorite football team's running back can fly, no amount of seeing him run is going to convince you otherwise.

The 1996 example shows that not only are debt ceiling showdowns not unprecedented, but that the situations that call for them are actually pretty rare. Since 1949--roughly, the birth of the modern government--there have only been two situations in which a Republican House of Representatives has contended with a Democratic President -- 1994 to 2000, and 2010 to today.

Almost certainly, there would have been more showdowns and more concessions had Clinton ever needed to raise the debt ceiling again during his presidency. But, he didn't need to. As you might recall, the national debt was going down then.

So I'll offer a different framework to view Obama's decision to work with Republicans. The 2011 debt ceiling deal was not a choice, it was an inevitability, baked in the cake on election day in November 2010. When the founding principle of the modern conservative movement is that the size and scope of the federal government is an existential threat to America's freedoms, using the debt ceiling as a tool to challenge a Democratic president is a necessity. And so is the president's willingness to deal.

And, despite his bluster, I think Obama still realizes this. The little caveat in his grand proclamations to refuse to negotiate this time around is that the White House is likely aiming for a mega-deal to ensure that the government is funded, and the debt ceiling is raised. That would give everyone a bit of plausible deniability--he could claim he refused to give in, Republicans could claim to have extracted concessions, and everyone can be happy.

Everyone, that is, except a certain subset of liberals who are convinced Obama can do something he just can't do.

UPDATE: Boehner's office is circulating a "fact sheet" which also highlights the 1996 debt deal. Lest you all think I'm some Republican hack, I wrote this before seeing that handout.

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