Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Congressional Republicans made their own luck

David Brooks wrote a column today, and you know what that means: time to point how David Brooks is always wrong about everything!

Well, except, not completely, not today. Because I agree with the gist of what he's saying today, which can be summed up as "Republicans are crazy not to take the debt ceiling deal." And they are! Earlier this year, the Republicans proposed a deficit plan that was 85 percent spending cuts and 15 percent revenue increases. As it stood before negotiations collapsed, the debt ceiling deal was weighted 83-17 in favor of spending cuts. From the point of view of any rational observer, that's a total Republican victory! A complete rout! Even David Brooks can see it! And yet the Republicans still want more, more, more.

But buried in this nugget of truth (stopped clock, etc.) is the usual array of mushy reasoning and concern trolling. I don't have time to point out all the ways that David Brooks is stupid (yet again), but there's one undercurrent in this column that really struck me. Look at this:
The Republicans have changed American politics since they took control of the House of Representatives. They have put spending restraint and debt reduction at the top of the national agenda. They have sparked a discussion on entitlement reform. They have turned a bill to raise the debt limit into an opportunity to put the U.S. on a stable fiscal course...

If the Republican Party were a normal party, it would take advantage of this amazing moment. It is being offered the deal of the century: trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for a few hundred million dollars of revenue increases.

A normal Republican Party would seize the opportunity to put a long-term limit on the growth of government. It would seize the opportunity to put the country on a sound fiscal footing. It would seize the opportunity to do these things without putting any real crimp in economic growth.

According to Brooks, we have arrived at a unique historical moment. The Republicans have seized upon an unusual confluence of events and set to work using it to reshape the country in the interests of fiscal sustainability. (And then, to Brooks' horror, they just kept going. You can almost feel his panic as the thought dawns on him: "Oh my god, maybe the Republicans aren't all 'reasonable conservatives' like myself. Maybe they're not the exact mirror image and perfect counterweight to overreaching Democrats. Maybe I was wrong all along. About everything." But I digress.) According to Brooks, we have arrived at a historical inflection point, where powerful men and women can change the country for the better, or the worse.

This in turn begs the question: just how unusual is this moment, anyway? What great opportunity has the Republican Party leveraged in its favor? Fortunately, that's a question we can answer with Facts and Numbers. All we have to do is determine which factors have made the current moment possible, and then determine how often those factors occur.

Factor Number One is that we've neared the debt limit, necessitating that it be raised. That creates the window for negotiation. How often has that happened? Since 1974, when the modern debt ceiling was created, Congress has voted to increase the debt limit 48 times.

Factor Number Two is divided government. Presumably, if one party controls the entire government, it would just pass the laws it wanted and, also, raise the debt ceiling. But if either party has the opportunity to block the debt limit increase, it's suddenly gained the exact same negotiating leverage the Republicans have now. That can mean divided control of Congress, or a Congress of one party and a President of another, or even, because of the filibuster, the simple absence of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. How many years since 1974 has the United States had divided government in this sense? Every year except the span from 1975 to 1978 -- the first four of the modern debt ceiling, as it turns out. In those four years, the debt ceiling was increased 8 times.

And that's it. Those are all the preconditions. In other words, there's nothing unique about the institutional features of this moment. The "opportunity" that David Brooks has identified, that has been so intrepidly exploited by clever congressional Republicans, has presented itself forty times since 1978. Forty times in thirty-three years. It's just that no one has seriously taken a crack at it -- until today. The Republican Party is now willing to cross a line that no one has crossed before.

The numbers above should strike terror in your heart. Those numbers show just how often a stubborn minority can take it upon itself to derail our government and make demands (and I'm not even counting the other opportunities built into the appropriations process; does anyone remember when the government almost shut down in March?). Now that the door has been opened, the trend created, the precedent set, can we expect to have this same fight forty times over the next thirty-three years? It sounds insane, but why not? The current crop of Republicans have no desire to compromise on anything. They've opposed Obama and the majority at almost every turn. What makes you think they'll suddenly mellow out after this latest episode?

David Brooks is worried that congressional Republicans, having stumbled upon a tremendous opportunity, might squander it by caving to the demands of the right's lunatic fringe. Maybe their demands will derail negotiations this time, or maybe not -- but it hardly matters. They can try again in two years, or one year, or even a few months. Because as long the debt ceiling exists in its current form, another "opportunity" will always be coming around shortly.

Instead, Brooks would do well to think about how this so-called opportunity was created by unyielding right-wing politics. It's Republican radicalism that weaponized the debt ceiling in the first place. Only someone as blithely ignorant of the realities of politics as David Brooks could be surprised that the same people haven't restrained themselves to reasonable dealmaking -- or unworried about the many unreasonable deals that may be waiting for us in the future.

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