Crisis, Repeat

Debt Ceiling Crisis Is Like a Toxic Groundhog Day on Capitol Hill

So we’re on the brink of default, with our AAA credit rating at risk and House radicals rushing for the fiscal cliff. Sound familiar? It’s just like August 2011—and Congress hasn’t learned a thing, says John Avlon.

10.16.13 9:45 AM ET

Welcome to Groundhog Day, with the hefty rodents on Capitol Hill scurrying toward another fiscal cliff.

Inflicted with extreme ideology—causing an acute sense of superiority that peaks just before impact—50 or so folks on the far right have decided to take the nation with them. This is not just government by crisis. This is government by tantrum.

Just before House Speaker John Boehner admitted impotence and announced he didn’t have the votes to pass a House Republican bill Tuesday night, the fiscal markets offered their own verdict. Fitch Ratings announced that it was placing America’s AAA rating on a rating watch negative.

Here’s how Fitch explained its criteria: “The impact of the debt ceiling brinkmanship and government shutdown on our assessment of the effectiveness of government and political institutions, the coherence and credibility of economic policy, the potential long-term impact on the U.S. sovereign’s cost of funding and cost of capital for the economy as a whole, and the implications for long-term growth.”

Translated from fiscal-ese, it means government incompetence has concrete results. Your interest rates might be hiked by the ideological overreach and incompetence on Capitol Hill. It is already exerting a negative effect on the American economy, getting us mocked by our strategic competitors overseas—and that’s an indelible impact even if Congress manages to avoid default.

So why is this Groundhog Day?

Because the last time we went through this kamikaze kabuki over the debt ceiling, in August 2011, Standard & Poor’s decided to strip the United States of its AAA credit rating—though we managed to avoid default at the time. S&P wrote then:

“The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy.”

Sound familiar? And who can say with a straight face that things are any better?

There has been no learning curve in Congress. What’s worse, the GOP leadership knows better. Boehner is a consummate dealmaker, but he is being held captive by the demands of 50 or so House radicals who have managed to hijack our democratic process. A minority of a minority is calling the shots through the electoral extortion of threatening primary challenges to any Republican in a gerrymandered safe seat who does not do exactly as they say.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) summed up these opinions neatly for The New York Times while pushing back on the prospect of a bipartisan compromise bill from the Senate: “We’ve got a name for it in the House: it’s called the Senate surrender caucus…Anybody who would vote for that in the House as [a] Republican would virtually guarantee a primary challenger.”

Got it? A constructive concern about governing means being labeled a member of the “surrender caucus” by conservative populists who deal in bumper-sticker politics. And the threat is clear: we’ll “virtually guarantee a primary challenger.” The base alloy of Huelskamp’s appeal isn’t principled courage, it’s cowardice in the face of fear of losing an otherwise lifetime seat.

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That anxiety was enforced at a critical moment by a press release from Heritage Action, the lobbyist wing of the once venerable conservative think tank. Despite being exiled from the Republican Study Committee for, among other things, having a racial-supremacist write its anti-immigration reform manifesto, the prospect of being labeled as insufficiently conservative in a “key vote” on its scorecard caused the gutless wonders on Capitol Hill to fold. The donors to Heritage Action, who no doubt hate a default even more than they hate Obamacare, may well have the last word. But for the time being, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and his radical House acolytes can enjoy the thrill of unity that comes from holding hands in free fall before hitting the hard ground of reality.

Plenty of fiscal illiterates, fortified by too much Kool-Aid, have been cheerleading the prospect of default. Case in point is Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), a genial card-carrying member of the idiot-extortionist caucus, who defended debt-ceiling default by saying, “I think, personally, it would bring stability to the world markets.” Confronted by facts, he backtracked a bit, saying, “I need to be schooled, or somebody needs to convince me, why we need to raise the debt ceiling.” But it’s such prideful ignorance by key decision makers, how responsibility has become a liability in Republican primaries, that has led us to this lemming-like Groundhog Day moment.

And then there’s a painful irony. The Tea Party movement began as a principled call for fiscal responsibility. But nothing is less fiscally responsible than refusing to pay our bills. Shutting down the government with an ideological temper tantrum wastes taxpayer dollars in the short and long term, and raises rates on Main Street Americans who expect government to solve problems rather than create them.

If we avoid default, now less than a day away, it will be because Boehner decides that his repeated commitment to avoid this self-inflicted economic disaster is more important than alienating Tea Party radicals in his base. That simply requires doing what he knows is right and allowing an open vote in the House. But within hours he will be faced with the stark choice between his party and his country, and sadly the outcome is far from assured.

The only thing that’s certain is the complete lack of a learning curve in our nation’s capital. And the full faith and credit of the greatest nation on earth hangs in the balance.