As the clock ticks toward a potentially catastrophic federal default next week, Washington’s beleaguered negotiators face a grim paradox: Is it possible for a deeply polarized political system to devise procedures that defuse polarization? The answer could be yes—if Washington can suppress its instinct for acrimony long enough to seize an opportunity glimmering in the debt debate’s sprawling rubble.
In effect, the struggle over raising the debt ceiling has come down to a dispute over what mechanisms Washington will employ to solve a long-term deficit challenge that the two parties have failed to resolve on their own. In this high-stakes maneuvering, Congress is trying to create new systems to replace the old means that allowed Washington to reach agreement in less divided times—quaint ideas like negotiation, empathy, and mutual concession.
The debt-ceiling debacle represents an ominous new peak in the relentless process of partisan and ideological polarization that has obliterated that more-conciliatory political world. The confrontation reflects the growing tendency in both parties, but especially in the GOP, to believe that the ends always justify the means. An iron law of modern politics is that whatever weapon can be used, will be used. The result has been to steadily shred the Geneva Conventions of Politics, the informal understandings that contained and bounded the political competition.
The most obvious example is the routine use of the Senate filibuster to block the majority party’s agenda. The filibuster was formerly reserved for the most momentous issues; today, senators reach for it as casually as a breath mint. Since 2009 alone, the Senate has held more votes to end filibusters than it did from 1917 through 1974.
A list of similarly overrun boundaries over the past decade would include the breakdown in the informal prohibition on House or Senate leaders from one party campaigning against the other; the Democratic push to systematically filibuster judicial nominees selected by George W. Bush; and the recent Senate Republican threat to block any nominee to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unless President Obama accepts GOP senators’ legislative proposal to limit the agency’s power. Each of these maneuvers moved Washington further toward a state of permanent partisan warfare that recognizes no boundaries.
In that progression, the debt-ceiling confrontation represents another vast leap forward. Republicans engaged in a dress rehearsal for it in 1995, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich initially refused to provide more borrowing authority unless President Clinton accepted the GOP’s budget demands. After months of skirmishing, Gingrich backed off and raised the debt limit. Reflecting the hardening of the divide between the parties since then, congressional Republicans this time have been much more willing to skirt default to advance their agenda. This episode has roared past the conventions of traditional political conflict as thoroughly as the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War shattered the rules of protecting civilians in warfare.
In an earlier time, leaders from each party might have resolved this standoff with a backroom negotiation that began with each asking the other: What do you need to get this done? The past few weeks have shown that in today’s hyper-partisan environment, such bargaining has become almost impossible, even with the best of intentions from the leaders. So the effort to avoid disaster now pivots, in some ways, on finding means to help the parties climb down from the ledge in spite of themselves.
On that front, beneath the bombast, the news of the past week is surprisingly encouraging. The proposals to raise the debt ceiling from Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid both establish the same two-step process to deal with the long-term deficit: an initial round of roughly $1 trillion in discretionary spending cuts that would be followed by the creation of a temporary committee with six Republican and six Democratic legislators, divided equally from each chamber, to propose further reductions.
That committee could be a game-changer. Because its recommendations could not filibustered, it would prevent a minority from blocking Senate action. It would likewise eliminate an implicit minority veto in the House by changing the calculations for the speaker. On his own volition, Boehner is unlikely to bring to the House floor any plan that lacks support from a majority of Republicans; that gives his caucus’s most conservative elements an effective veto. But because the committee’s recommendations would be guaranteed a floor vote, that power would be eliminated; its plan could pass the House with any combination of 218 Republican and Democratic votes.
In each chamber, majority rule would make it easier to pass a comprehensive approach that balances spending cuts with revenue increases. The two parties, as this column goes to press, remain stalemated over what the consequences should be if that committee is stalemated—or if Congress rejects its recommendations. Those are admittedly difficult questions to resolve. That issue alone, however, shouldn’t derail the progress the two sides have made this week. They’ve shown that a process can be constructed to formulate a long-term deficit solution that can command majority support in the country and Congress. What they haven’t shown is whether Washington can surmount its differences long enough to launch it.
This article appears in the July 30, 2011, edition of National Journal.