The last-minute deal to reopen the government and raise the debt limit apparently concludes a reckless episode that has been bad for the country and worse for Republicans.
That’s the good news. The bad is that the deal appears to set the country up for a replay early in the new year. The agreement, reached by Senate leaders, would reopen the government only until Jan. 15 and raise the debt ceiling until Feb. 7. Meanwhile, congressional negotiators would be required to recommend longer-term spending levels and deficit reduction plans by Dec. 13.
The obvious threat is that, unless something changes, Washington will end up in the same place again.
The only clear path to the possibility of change is for House Speaker John Boehner to abandon the so-called Hastert Rule, which requires any bill to have the support of a majority of Republicans before the speaker will bring it to the House floor. The votes of Democrats plus Republicans who believe in the common good would be enough to get past the roadblock over the budget and debt ceiling.
There is a political threat to Republicans in the deal, since the new dates for government shutdown and default are in an election year, when the entire House and one-third of the Senate are up for grabs. Even many Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recognize the damage that this self-inflicted crisis has done to the Republican brand. A repeat performance leading into campaign season would be disastrous for Republicans.
In fact, something similar played out in 2011, when Republicans again played a game of brinkmanship over the nation’s debt limit. Congress was able to avoid defaulting on the nation’s debts only through creation of a “Super Committee” that was to produce an agreement on debt reduction.
The committee failed and the consequence was sequestration – automatic, unthinking budget cuts that have hurt million of Americans while doing almost nothing to reduce the deficit.
That’s what faces the country again, only in an election year, if Congress cannot agree on ways to reduce the federal deficit in less than two months. The Super Committee was unable to reach such an agreement in 2011, and Congress isn’t notably different today.
The pitiful thing is that there is a way forward. It will be painful for all, but in the end, neither Republicans nor Democrats will accept any pain unless the other side does. That’s the nature of politics and the two-party system, regardless of the fantasies to which the tea party clings.
That path ahead was described almost three years ago by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, appointed by President Obama and more familiarly known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission. Alan Simpson is a retired conservative Republican senator from Wyoming. Erskine Bowles was White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. Together, they represent a wide swath of American political thinking. More than that, they understand that this country wasn’t built for zealots and radicals. Their prescription was as obvious as it was painful: combine tax increases with budget cuts and get on with it.
Democratic government works when people of passion and good will clash, listen and compromise. It falls apart when one-half of one-third of the government insists on having its own way and threatens to tear the fabric that holds the country together. That has been the role of the tea party for nearly three years. It has accomplished nothing of value, serving only to spoil the reputation of the Republican Party as an organization worthy of Americans’ trust.
Indeed, this tea party tantrum sprang from the far right’s obsessive focus on the Affordable Care Act. Its deluded members, in and out of Congress, thought they could force the hands of Senate Democrats and even the president to agree to defund the law. It was a pipe dream, and you don’t have to be a supporter of the law to recognize that.
That’s why Boehner – if he survives as speaker – will have to abandon the Hastert Rule if he is to begin rebuilding the party’s reputation and accomplish anything of lasting value. If he does that, he will have done his party and the country a great service.