Congress's new brinkmanship: Better or worse than politics as usual?

The old way of resolving disputes on Capitol Hill – backroom deals greased with US dollars for lawmakers' districts – has been replaced this year by a new brinkmanship. But the game of chicken has its own unintended consequences.

Susan Walsh/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio (shown speaking to a trade association in Washington last month) stood against a proposed debt-limit hike this year, demanding spending cuts of equal size – and without tax hikes.

Crisis mode is becoming the new normal for Congress, which in the past nine months has stonewalled its way into three government shutdown scares and an unprecedented near-default on the national debt.

Almost gone on Capitol Hill is the old way of resolving disputes: backroom deals greased with federal dollars destined for lawmakers' home districts. In its place is a new brinkmanship fixed almost exclusively on cutting federal spending.

The new modus operandi? Draw a line in the sand, threaten Armageddon, then hold out until the other side caves or financial markets tumble, whichever comes first. It's an approach, say critics, that calls into question Congress's capacity to fulfill its basic constitutional obligations.

"It's governing by threat, high stakes, and cliffhangers," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. "You wait until the last minute; both sides are willing to threaten shutdown. The worst scenario is that the players are getting used to governing this way. The more you do something like this, the more comfortable you get to do it again."

The new brinkmanship coincides with the Republican takeover of the House in January, including 87 freshmen, many elected with tea party support. The new majority had campaigned to cinch government, get the United States on a sustainable fiscal course, and not raise taxes, period. The intensity of that commitment – and the willingness of GOP leaders to stick to it, even in the face of possibly draconian outcomes – stunned the Obama White House and congressional Democrats, who took months to adapt.

With this brand of power politics, Republicans have managed to dictate the conversation in Washington – effectively shifting it from the need for economic stimulus to the need to cut, cut, cut. Factors that might have intervened to prevent walking up to the brink – namely personal ties across the aisle – have faded. And, of course, soaring US deficits do lend their own sense of urgency.

So far, the US balance sheet looks marginally better after these showdowns. But Congress's reputation as an institution capable of governing has taken a battering.

Such a culture shift has happened before, but on the Senate side. It used to be that filibusters were relatively rare events, but over the past 25 years they have been threatened often – so much so that a 60-vote "supermajority" is now needed to move any remotely controversial measure.

Here's how a routine issue – wrapping up the previous Congress's unfinished business – became a dance on the cliff.

Test case: fiscal 2011 spending

Funding for the second half of fiscal year 2011 (April-September) became the test case of the new GOP majority's clout. A new Congress typically deals with unfinished spending bills of the previous Congress by criticizing the outgoing majority for incompetence, then passing a monster bill with enough new spending for home districts to ensure it passes. But this time was different: House Republicans last fall had campaigned to cut $100 billion from President Obama's budget request.

After a battle among House GOP conservatives, Republicans on April 7 agreed to a lesser $38.5 billion cut. Speaker John Boehner persuaded caucus members that they had won a point of principle and would only lose public support if it came to a shutdown, just as they had after standoffs with President Bill Clinton in 1995.

But a subsequent analysis by the Congressional Budget Office found that the budget deal would whittle spending by only $352 million. Critics, blaming Mr. Boehner, dubbed the outcome "smoke and mirrors." House leaders reassured angry conservatives that this was merely a first step toward changing the culture of Washington. The point of maximum leverage was yet to come: Mr. Obama's request to raise the US debt limit.

Debt-limit Armageddon

Congress usually deals with raising the national debt limit by criticizing the president and then passing a bill with as little fanfare as possible. It would be inconceivable for any Congress to jeopardize the full faith and credit of the US, said officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations.

In fact, Congress had raised the national debt ceiling 78 times since 1960, 49 times at the request of Republican presidents and 30 at the behest of Democrats.

But many House GOP freshmen had pledged to oppose raising the $14.3 trillion national debt limit by even a dime. Boehner declared on May 9 that no increase would clear the House unless the legislation included spending cuts equal to the size of the debt-limit increase – and no tax hikes. Then, he stuck to it.

The House tied a higher debt ceiling to a "cut, cap, and balance" bill, which would require Congress to cut current spending, cap future spending, and pass a balanced budget amendment to the US Constitution. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada dubbed the bill "weak and senseless … perhaps the worst legislation in the history of this country." Democrats said any big plan to shrink debt and deficits should include tax hikes and shared sacrifice. Moreover, they said, the hike in the debt limit was for spending that Congress had already authorized, and Congress had an obligation to cover its checks.

With the US government on the brink of default, Congress on Aug. 2 approved a debt-limit hike that met Boehner's terms. But the drama alarmed world financial markets. On Aug. 5, the US lost its top-tier AAA credit rating, in part because of concern that Congress was not capable of getting the nation onto sound fiscal footing. Public approval plummeted, too.

"The Republicans have found a strategy that ... worked quite well for them – the politics of hostage-taking and blackmail," says Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "The Republicans have made this a credible threat knowing that the Democrats – in part because they own the presidency – are going to blink."

Democrats regroup over 2012 spending

As part of the debt-ceiling deal, Congress set a level for discretionary spending for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 – typically the toughest issue to resolve in any budget cycle. Leaders of both parties predicted that such funding would pass without a hitch. Then, House majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia drew a new line in the sand: Given the tough financial climate, Congress must make spending cuts to offset higher funding for disaster relief for the balance of fiscal 2011, included in the fiscal 2012 bill. Obama requested $500 million in emergency disaster spending. House Republicans offered $1 billion, but at the price of $1.5 billion in cuts from clean energy programs popular with Democrats.

This time Democrats drew their own line in the sand. If the "Cantor principle" prevailed, they said, the GOP could leverage every flood, fire, or hurricane to squeeze out more spending cuts, probably at the expense of education or services for the poor. With all but two states classified as disaster areas, Democrats expected public support for their position.

Neither side blinked. The Democratic-controlled Senate rejected the House bill. The deadlock was resolved only after the Obama administration announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could get by until the new fiscal year without extra disaster relief funds. With FEMA offsets resolved, the Senate passed a continuing resolution to fund government through Nov. 18. The House is expected to pass the measure on Tuesday, giving Congress another six weeks to approve funding for fiscal 2012.

“Hopefully, we can certainly avoid any kind of shutdown talk this time, get it done, and continue along our mission to try and change the way that spending occurs in this town,” said Representative Cantor on Oct. 3.

But both sides emerged from the first 2012 budgetary skirmishes on track to continue the brinksmanship.

"Democrats decided to come back with their own credible threat not to give in, even when faced with the prospect of a government shutdown," says Mr. Ornstein. But with the details of 2012 spending unresolved, plenty of latitude exists for further brinkmanship, he adds.

Meanwhile, House Republicans are preparing policy riders, sure to be controversial, for the remaining 2012 spending bills. Likely next flash points will be proposed GOP riders that would rein in government regulation, defund implementation of health-care reform, limit the scope of the National Labor Relations Board, and strengthen language banning the use of public funds to pay for abortions and protecting doctors who refuse to perform them.

"This succession of fiscal crises casts government in a terrible light to the public," says political scientist Ross Baker, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "There's real institutional damage that results from these threatened shutdowns and being on the threshold of default."

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