Thanks to last-minute negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the government of the United States open, and the threat that the nation will default on its debts for the first time has lifted, at least for the moment. Faced with a deadline, cool heads prevailed, the national interest was preserved and President Barack Obama’s refusal to negotiate while Republicans threatened to torpedo the global economy was validated.
But the swift denouement of the shutdown/debt limit crisis begs a big question: Why couldn’t this have happened three weeks ago?
The Republicans who precipitated this mess achieved almost nothing from the effort except to reach new lows in public esteem. Obamacare remains the law of the land, and the GOP got none of the other things — ranging from approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to the elimination of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — that they tried at various points to exact as their ransom for holding the nation hostage. If anything, they might have been able to get a better deal if they had struck one before public frustration reduced their bargaining position to virtually nil.
The Reid-McConnell deal passed the House even though a majority of Republicans there voted against it. House Speaker John Boehner allowed a vote on it in violation of the so-called Hastert Rule, which posits that only measures that gain support of a majority of the majority can come to the House floor. He could have done that in September and achieved the same result.
But he didn’t because to do so would have brought on the wrath of the tea party and might have imperiled his position in leadership. Instead, he cast his lot with the Obamacare dead-enders and spent the next few weeks demonstrating just how fractured his caucus is. He certainly should have known how this would end — there was no lack of Republicans explaining it to him and the public from the start. Perhaps he calculated that indulging the far right’s temper tantrum was the only way to maintain some semblance of unity in the House GOP.
Put another way, in order to hold on to the speaker’s office, he was willing to put 800,000 government employees plus countless federal contractors out of work for nearly three weeks, do severe damage to the economy, wreak havoc on the lives of all those who need federal services or regulatory approvals, cost Maryland and other states millions in tax revenue, damage our international standing, encourage a sell-off of short term Treasury securities and prompt a credit watch for the United States from one of the top three bond rating agencies.
For the moment, Mr. Boehner’s job appears to be secure. If anything, he has won some grudging respect from the conservatives in his caucus for leading them on a veritable Pickett’s Charge. If there is any consolation to be found here it is that whoever would replace Mr. Boehner would almost certainly be worse.
Today President Obama asserted that the full faith and credit of the United States remains beyond question. We certainly hope he is right about that, but we have reason to worry that narrowly averting an unnecessary crisis serves to further diminish the world’s confidence in America’s ability to govern itself. The use of the United States dollar as the world’s reserve currency and the ubiquity of Treasury securities in the global financial markets has incalculable benefits for the American economy. It won’t necessarily take a full-scale default for that to begin to change. For that reason, what comes next may be just as important as the votes Congress took on Wednesday night.