By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON — Are we really going to do this? Are we going to wade into a struggle we don’t really want to fight? Are we going to mire ourselves in a senseless, grinding conflict whose possible outcomes range from bad to worse?
I’m talking about the upcoming budget battles in Washington, of course. (What, you thought I meant something else?)
Incredibly, Congress seems determined to spend much of the fall demonstrating its boundless talent for dysfunction. House Republicans say they will threaten once again to send the nation into default — and the economy over a cliff — by refusing to raise the federal debt ceiling, now set at $16.7 trillion. This means that by mid-October, the government will exhaust its borrowing authority and be left without enough money to pay its bills.
“The president doesn’t think this is fair, thinks I’m being difficult to deal with,” Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last week at an Idaho fundraiser. “But I’ll say this: It may be unfair, but what I’m trying to do here is to leverage the political process to produce more change than what it would produce if left to its own devices. We’re going to have a whale of a fight.”
In other words, Boehner is looking forward to the opportunity to threaten the nation with grievous harm. Nice little economic recovery you’re working on. Wouldn’t want anything to happen to it.
President Obama, who has seen this movie before, says there will be no fight because he categorically refuses to negotiate over the debt ceiling. He demands that Congress do its job — which amounts to a routine bit of bookkeeping — without all the needless drama.
Investors around the world still consider U.S. Treasury bills, notes and bonds to be the ultimate safe haven, especially in times of economic uncertainty. It is unthinkable that our elected officials, supposedly working in the nation’s best interests, would threaten this exalted and immensely beneficial status by intentionally triggering a default.
So, who’s going to blink?
Obama certainly has the stronger political position. His approval numbers may be stuck in the high 40s, but ratings for Congress are down in the teens — and sinking.
Boehner, however, has almost no room to maneuver. House Republicans are still fuming at having been forced to swallow a modest tax increase for the wealthy as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal earlier this year. The responsible thing would be for Boehner to bring a simple bill raising the debt ceiling to the floor, where it would pass with the votes of Democrats and non-crazy Republicans. But that would probably cost Boehner his job.
You’re depressed already? I’m just getting started.
Before we even get to the debt-ceiling fight, the government will run out of authority to spend money on Sept. 30 — which means no ability to function — unless Congress approves a continuing resolution. Doing so should be another no-brainer, but some Republicans are itching for a government shutdown. Because, you know, that worked so well for Newt Gingrich in the ’90s.
Boehner wants none of that. But in an attempt to get House Republicans to avert a shutdown by passing a short-term funding bill, he promises them a “whale of a fight” later over the debt ceiling. (He treats his caucus as if it were a cage full of rabid wolverines.)
Oh, and there’s another whole dimension to the pointless political snarling and bickering we will have to endure over the next few months: Obamacare.
Some Republicans believe, or say they believe, that they can use the continuing-resolution fight or the debt-ceiling fight, or maybe both, to force Obama to sign legislation nullifying all or part of his health care reforms. One idea is to take away Obamacare’s funding. Another is to delay the individual health insurance mandate, due to take effect next year.
Do they really believe the president is willing to forsake his most important legislative accomplishment? Before it even comes fully into effect?
This is a tragic waste of time and effort, and the House Republicans are to blame. Remember when Democrats captured the House in 2006? They worked with George W. Bush, even though they disagreed with his policies. Most Democrats adamantly opposed the Iraq War, but then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi made sure that Bush got the funding he needed for the troops.
Boehner and his crew need to act like grown-ups. If they don’t, voters need to send them home.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.