As the United States moves closer to an Aug. 2 default on some of its payments – perhaps including checks for Social Security recipients and veterans – it is becoming ever clearer that the two most important numbers in the debt-ceiling crisis are 1982 and 1990.
In short, hardcore Republican debt hawks remain determined to prevent a repeat of those two years, even as a historic default that many economists say could seriously damage an already weak economy looms in less than three days.
What happened in those two years? Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush both agreed to tax increases after Congress promised to make even greater cuts to spending. In both cases, the tax increases took effect, the spending cuts did not.
“Congress never cut spending by even one penny, ” Reagan said later.
Herein lies the, so far, unsolvable problem. The conservative House Republicans who have walked away from compromise plans by the White House and Senate simply do not trust Congress to do what it says it will do.
They see in Democratic plans the same empty promises to get what Democrats want (a raise in the debt ceiling) while proposing cuts that will never take effect. And they see in the debt-ceiling crisis the lever to at last break Congress of that pattern.
Their solution: Enshrine the spending cuts in the Constitution through a balanced-budget amendment, and then Congress will have no choice but to follow through on cuts. Both debt-ceiling bills that have passed the Republican-controlled House – including the one Friday – have included such a measure.
The problem: Democrats don't want a balanced-budget amendment, and the Democrat-controlled Senate has tabled both Republican House bills – the legislative equivalent of telling House Republicans they are an out-of-control romper room and the adults in the Senate aren't impressed.
As a result, it appears as if any potential compromise plan to emerge from the Senate Saturday must address this issue in a more creative way if it is to stand any chance of passing the House. Either that, or Democrats must hope that Republicans finally relent when (as forecast by some) financial markets dive Monday amid the uncertainty surrounding the debt impasse. A similar scenario played out in 1995 when Republicans shut down the government.
That, however, is a rather high-stakes game of political chicken, with the entire American economy caught in the middle. In attempts to avoid that, there is talk of a "trigger" mechanism – a proviso short of a constitutional amendment that compels Congress to make its spending cuts.
If that does take shape, Republicans will push to make that trigger as severe as possible. In earlier negotiations, they reportedly suggested that Obama's health-care plan could be a trigger – it would be repealed if the promised spending cuts were not met.
And that is what Washington has been brought to: A stark recognition of how determined these tea party-inspired ideologues are, and a real-time lesson in the power and consequences of a iron-willed refusal to relent.
It has been suggested that the House Republicans have already won, though they don't appear to notice.
They have changed the way Washington talks, with every conversation on Capitol Hill centering on how much can be cut, not how much can be spent.
They have changed the way Washington works, essentially making extinct Old Washington's way of making deals – offering perks to recalcitrant members.
And they have gotten a president whose greatest accomplishment was expanding the safety net through health-care reform to acknowledge that changes to Medicare and Social Security are not off the table – and perhaps even necessary.
Yet they came to Washington vowing not to play Washington's game, and by the measure of the past week, it is abundantly clear that they have not.