How Congress is giving new life (and scope) to 'brinkmanship'

'Brinkmanship,' a staple in the cold-war lexicon, is back in vogue on Capitol Hill. It's now used to describe not just a political game of chicken, but also as a synonym for overall governmental conflict-induced dysfunction.

Gary Cameron/Reuters/File
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky speaks to reporters on budget negotiations to avert a government shutdown on Dec. 9, 2014. With McConnell are Sens. Roy Blount (R) of Missouri (l.) and John Thune (R) of South Dakota (r.). The final deal funded all but the Department of Homeland Security, whose funding runs out on Feb. 27, with the prospect of another shutdown looming.

Brinkmanship. The now-standard term for any high-stakes game of political chicken, particularly over spending matters.

“Brinkmanship” once was used in the national security realm during the cold war, to describe moving to the very edge of war in order to force a conciliatory move. Democrat Adlai Stevenson, who ran for president in 1952 and 1956, blasted Republican Secretary of State John Foster Dulles for “boasting of his brinkmanship – the art of bringing us to the edge of the abyss.” As University of California-Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has observed, it has endured far longer than “mutual assured destruction” and other words from that era.

“The crises of the Cold War kept taking the world to the brink of the same terrifying catastrophe,” Nunberg said in a New York Times language column. “Now there seem to be lots of littler brinks and local abysses.”

At the moment, it’s being used to connote the dispute between congressional Republicans and the White House over a spending bill for the Homeland Security Department that Republicans are trying to use to halt President Obama’s efforts to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. The department’s funding is set to run out next Friday, but Senate Democrats have refused to allow the House-passed version of the bill to come up, raising the prospect of a partial government shutdown.

“The situation is frustrating some senior GOP lawmakers,” Politico reported, “because it’s consuming valuable legislative time and because the new GOP-controlled Congress was hoping to put brinkmanship and deadline-driven crises behind it.”

The squabble has grown so divisive – with the courts as well as Congress involved, and House Republicans attacking Senate Republicans -- that liberal Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent concluded last week that “the brinksmanship could only get crazier from here on out.”

It may seem like it was an eternity now, but when Obama embarked on his second term just over two years ago, he spoke hopefully of fiscal-related dealings that would include “a little bit less drama, a little bit less brinkmanship, [and] not scare the heck out of folks quite so much.” That, of course, turned out to be wishful thinking, given the government shutdown that occurred eight months later.

Perhaps as a result, “brinkmanship” also is becoming something of a synonym for overall governmental conflict-induced dysfunction. Rep. Janice Hahn (D) of California used it in that context this week when she announced that she would run for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 2016: “With so much brinkmanship in Washington, I am confident that I can get more done for our region back here at home, serving in local government.”

By the way, the word used is both “brinkmanship” and “brinksmanship.” The version without the “s” is far more common, but both are considered acceptable.

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Decoder Voices. 

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