The nation’s Congress narrowly averted the shutdown of the federal government last week. The precipitating issue concerned whether and how to reduce national expenditures in concert with the provision of disaster assistance to states and localities hard hit by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. This controversy followed by just weeks the federal government barely avoiding default in the face of congressional deadlock concerning raising the nation’s debt ceiling. And legislative leaders have made clear the country is by no means secure from the prospect of a continuing series of such situations in future weeks and months. The question is what to make of this new penchant for what might be labeled “governance by brinksmanship.” Is this difficult turn the result of hyper-partisanship on the part of members of both parties, as media reports often suggest? Is it the product of one party’s political strategizing to use such tactics to obtain policy choices it otherwise has been unable to attain? Is it the result of one group’s absolutist pursuit of ideological claims? Is it perhaps a combination of these factors and explanations? I here offer only a brief reflection concerning what is surely a very difficult and complex subject. What seems more certain amidst so much rancor and uncertainty is that this new phenomenon runs the risk over time of corroding the very sinews that bind the nation and permit its legitimate governance.
One place to begin to consider this trend is to note that it has followed the Tea Party’s rise as an important force in the Republican Party, especially, since the November 2010 congressional election. GOP Tea Party adherents call for a smaller national government and lament (and attack) the nation’s current domestic policy and regulatory structures. Tea Party advocates now represent a substantial bloc in the GOP congressional majority in the US House of Representatives and as a group they are disinclined to compromise concerning their stated aspirations. Indeed, they are defined by their absolutist commitment to their interests and views. As for their specific concerns, Tea Partiers seek sharp reductions immediately in the federal budget to address the nation’s deficit and long-term debt. Not coincidentally perhaps, given their ideological convictions, they would like to see those reductions occur disproportionately in domestic programs, rather than in defense spending. House Speaker John Boehner, surely a conservative but not a Tea Party adherent, has had to pay close attention to this now vocal and uncompromising portion of his majority.
Nonetheless, it was Boehner and not Tea Party adherents, who decided to tie the nation’s debt ceiling debate to a call for sharp expenditure reductions. Boehner and not Tea Party partisans chose to use the need to raise the debt ceiling and a threat of default to shift the nation’s policy debate toward deficit reduction and away from what the government should (could) do to alleviate the nation’s ongoing high unemployment. In short, a key GOP leader selected policy brinksmanship to pursue his party’s electoral and policy aims. But, Boehner may well have miscalculated how unwilling to compromise many in his majority would prove to be once this proverbial genie was loosed, even in the face of concessions from the opposition. The nation came perilously close to default and many Tea Party devotees refused to vote for the bill that eventually averted that catastrophic outcome, arguing the agreement “did not reduce expenditures sufficiently.” If one takes these individuals at their word, it seems clear that many of those partisans were willing to see the nation default if it meant attaining more of their desired aims. One might summarize this scenario by suggesting our new “policy-making while in peril” style of governance is the result of a group of lawmakers who are unwilling to countenance the legitimacy of opposing points of view, apparently out of a combination of partisan strategizing and ideological absolutism. It could also be that many of these lawmakers feel “safe” in their districts and are willing to take these stands believing themselves politically free to do so. It really does not matter whether one or both of these hypotheses is true, as the result for governance is the same in either case.
Nonetheless, most mainstream media stories depict these controversies as the result of interparty conflict and gridlock and suggest both sides of the aisle are complicit in these continuing imbroglios. In this view, neither party can or will compromise due to their position taking, constituencies or ideology. And this may be partly true. Nevertheless, this portrayal sets aside the fact that one political party and its most powerful leader has adopted brinksmanship as a defining political strategy and that party has a critical group of lawmakers within it who have vowed not to compromise and to “take no prisoners” to achieve its policy aims. A fair-minded view would seem to require, classic journalistic “balanced reporting” norms aside, taking this reality into account and recognizing that these scenarios would likely not be unfolding if one party were not engineering them, whatever its reasons for doing so.
What emerges from this brief overview is a sense that one bloc of lawmakers and one party’s leadership have subjected the nation to repeated “crises” because they believe it in their political or policy interests to do so. The difficult issue to understand from the outside looking in is how potential national default or repeated national government breakdowns or near-breakdowns can be in any party’s or the nation’s collective interest. But to the extent that this strategy is born of absolutist ideology, or of lawmakers who believe they are harmed less by these tactics than their opponents (read President Obama and the Democratic Party) in the eyes of the electorate, the collective cost of such efforts may not matter. Instead, those devising these strategies ultimately may simply be dismissing those costs in favor instead of attaining power or using the sledgehammer represented by these crises to secure what have heretofore otherwise been unattainable policy aims.
Overall, this analysis suggests that a mix of ideological absolutism and political ruthlessness have created our nation’s current governance breakdown. Unless and until it results in real political costs to those propounding it, governance by brinksmanship looks set to continue. To say that this situation is lamentable is to state the obvious. It is also the case that only the general electorate can prevent its continuation by refusing to countenance it. To the extent, however, that its purveyors are able to blame others and escape political penalty, or even to profit (understood as electoral, policy and fiscal outcomes they view as desirable) from their behavior, it will surely continue.
It also seems timely to note that this absolutist partisanship and brinksmanship strategy impose enormous opportunity costs not only for the nation’s capacity to govern itself and for its standing in the world, but also for its legitimacy with its own people. Millions of Americans are already cynical about the government’s capacities and millions more share an underlying cultural disposition to distrust the government, even as they are deeply fearful about the nation’s current economic situation. While a measure of skepticism of government is surely healthy and current fears are understandable, United States democracy rests ultimately on the population’s abiding belief in the legitimacy of its public institutions. To degrade popular trust by repeatedly bringing the government to a standstill or risking its default, especially when that belief is already at low levels, is to risk the enervation of democracy itself. Whatever else may be said of such behavior and whatever its origins, it is ultimately dangerous and ethically irresponsible for that reason. That it has been undertaken self-consciously as a political strategy only makes it more repugnant. Whatever their partisanship, the nation’s leaders must pay obeisance first and searchingly to the common weal and it is in no one’s interest, whatever their ideology and beliefs, to prevent America’s government from functioning effectively, or deliberately to undermine its legitimacy with its people. This is a classic case of leaders losing their way: The end sought simply does not justify the means adopted to pursue it. The potential long-term costs imposed far exceed any perceived short-term electoral or partisan advantage.