In so many words, President Obama just told the public that Iran—an enemy of the United States for more than thirty years—is easier to deal with than John Boehner and Republicans in the House.
With a brief statement this afternoon, Obama announced two things. First, that he engaged in direct talks with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, breaking a 30-year streak of non-engagement between leaders of the two countries. And second, that he would not haggle with House Republicans over lifting the debt ceiling, noting the extent to which a Treasury default would harm the economic standing of the United States, and plunge global markets into chaos. “I will not negotiate over Congress’ responsibility to pay the bills that have already been racked up,” Obama said.
As he emphasized, the debt ceiling isn’t an authorization of new spending; it’s merely a measure that allows Treasury to pay existing bills. By virtue of authorizing any spending at all, the House of Representatives gave consent to the administration for new borrowing. A debt limit increase is merely the formalization of that consent. It’s also important to note that raising the debt limit isn’t a “concession” to the president. The White House gets nothing from an increase in the debt ceiling, just as the GOP loses nothing from raising it. It’s simply an administrative procedure that allows the government—and the economy—to function.
One other thing came across in Obama’s statement. For him, this isn’t a run-of-the-mill fight over the budget. It’s a challenge to America’s system of government. Not only did the debt limit stand-off threaten the nation’s economy, he explained, but it set the stage for future Congresses to force concessions from future presidencies. Indeed, when you consider Republican demands on the debt limit—in “exchange” for raising the ceiling—they want Obama to implement their entire domestic agenda. What this amounts to is an attempt to nullify the results of the 2012 election with a threat to the economic well-being of the United States. It’s a level of procedural radicalism unseen since before the Civil War.
Regardless of where you stand on questions of spending and taxation, you should want President Obama to stand strong and force the GOP to concede to a clean extension of the debt limit. A world in which an opposition party can extract policy concessions with threat—even after losing an election— is one in which the Constitutional balance of American government is upset. And make no mistake, this is no small thing. There’s a reason that presidential democracies are uncommon in the world—they’re fragile. When two separate parties can make a legitimate claim to representing the majority—which is what we have when Democrats control the presidency and the Senate, and Republicans control the House—conflict is inevitable.
For all of its flaws, our system is capable of handling that conflict. But it requires compromise and a recognition that the other side has a legitimate claim to power. Right now, the GOP is fighting a fierce internal battle over whether it can tolerate the former, and extend the latter to President Obama and the Democratic Party. Caving on the debt limit would give a huge—and irreversible—victory to the extremists.