Daniel W. Drezner

The atypical domestic politics of the debtopocalypse

As the markets begin their full-on freak out over the failure of Washington to raise the debt ceiling, I must confess to having a semi-out-of-body experience about the whole thing.  The American in me is simply appalled by the stupid, self-destructive behavior that led to this thoroughly avoidable apocalypse.  The political scientist in me, however, ...

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

As the markets begin their full-on freak out over the failure of Washington to raise the debt ceiling, I must confess to having a semi-out-of-body experience about the whole thing.  The American in me is simply appalled by the stupid, self-destructive behavior that led to this thoroughly avoidable apocalypse.  The political scientist in me, however, is utterly fascinated by the whole shebang.  I understand that wartime photographers have the same kind of problem — I wish they had a word for it. 

So, taking my American hat off and putting my poli sci hat on, I find it fascinating that House Speaker John Boehner is having so much difficulty whipping a debt ceiling bill that is already a dead letter in the Senate.  Conventionally, whipping is done through a mixture of cajoling, coercing and cash — with an emphasis on the latter.  A pet project here, a pet project there, and presto, you have a majority. 

The problem is that the nature of the GOP House caucus, combined with the party’s anti-government ideology, has stripped Boehner of everything but the cajoling.  First, here’s the Politico story on last night’s whip effort:

Boehner and his top lieutenants worked deep into Thursday night trying to find a just-right solution that would attract 216 votes for the package of $900 billion in new borrowing authority, $917 billion in spending cuts over the next decade, and a process for entitlement and tax reform legislation that could lead to $1.6 trillion or so in deficit reduction and a second increase in the debt limit.

They don’t have available to them the same tools as past Republican leadership teams: There are no earmarks to hand out, nor any to take away, for example.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of the last holdouts and a candidate for the Senate in Arizona, spoke of how “refreshing” it was to see a lobbying effort bereft of the legislative grease that used to secure last-minute votes in the House. He said the vote-building would have “cost $20 billion” in the past.

Yes, it’s totally refreshing.  It’s also totally f**king useless, because Boehner isn’t trying to cajole moderates, he’s trying to cajole ideological hardliners.  David Weigel explains in his wrap-up:

The Republican dilemma quickly revealed itself. In other situations where a majority party needed to grind out a few final votes, it called on members who agreed with the concept of legislation but quibbled with the text….

John Boehner and Eric Cantor couldn’t sell their Republicans in the same way. Their diehards never wanted to raise the debt limit. They had supported a strict, doomed version of a debt ceiling deal, Cut, Cap, and Balance, which did that, but even then, they weren’t really comfortable with the concept of what they were doing. They did not want to raise the debt limit. Their constituents were uncomfortable with the idea, at first. And now they were being asked to raise the limit, without the conditions they liked, because… why? Because they were told that failing to do so would give Barack Obama all the leverage in the debt fight. That was too clever by half for some Republicans. More than 24 Republicans, it seemed.

Tonight, reporters stalked outside the offices of Boehner and Cantor as members walked in and out for meetings. This wasn’t like health care, or even the continuing resolution. We were watching diehard conservatives, who had never wanted to raise the debt limit, and who had never done so in their careers, being begged for votes. As the night dragged on, the visitors did not look like the sort who could cave on big, existential votes. Louie Gohmert, one of the diehards who believes that Tim Geithner is lying about the threat of default, was dragged in. Tim Scott, the co-president of the freshman class, was dragged in; he walked out nonplussed, walked past reporters, and took out his iPod earbuds to confirm he was a "no." Roscoe Bartlett, an octogeniaran, who’s not usually counted on for tough votes, entered the hot room telling reporters he didn’t want to choose between "bad and really bad." The farce peaked when Gohmert joined freshman Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., for a prayer session in the House’s chapel. It can’t be good when members of Congress are literally asking for salvation.

If you are looking only to God for a clue about how you should vote, neither material incentives nor political rhetoric is gonna sway you.  And now you know why I think there’s a 50/50 chance that no deal occurs  by August 2. 

UPDATE:  Megan McArdle has some similar reactions to the same Politico story as I did.

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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