When you see Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell doubling down on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s view that the debt limit can only be increased in exchange for a massive deficit reduction package that includes zero increases in revenue, I think it’s important to set this in a broader structural context.
There’s a certain logic to saying that you won’t do a debt ceiling increase unless there’s a plan in place to reduce the deficit. But to then turn around and object that the president’s deficit-reduction plan includes some deficit reducing ideas you don’t like turns this into nonsense. The basic idea here is that since the federal government will ultimately need to default on the national debt unless all three branches agree on a debt ceiling increase, the two branches controlled by Democrats should surrender entirely to the one branch controlled by Republicans. These things do happen. Once upon a time, the United Kingdom had a three branched system composed of King, Lords, and Commons. But over time it became established that all the real decision-making authority rested with the House of Commons, and we had a de facto unicameral system. The Lords and King lacked the democratic legitimacy to prevail in standoffs, so all power goes to the Commons.
But that would obviously be a total revolution in American constitutional practice, and nobody has laid the groundwork for it or offered an explanation of why you should think of President Obama as similar to a king. After all, if Cantor, McConnell, and Boehner are able to say “national default unless we have an all-cuts deficit reduction package,” then why not also say “national default unless we bomb North Korea” or “national default unless we reinstate Don’t Ask Don’t Tell?” Over the longer term, I don’t think serious people of any ideological persuasion seriously think it’ll be a good thing for America to turn all public policy debates into a series of hostage scenarios with debt default as the price. This is in part a testament to why it was a mistake of Obama to get sucked into this negotiation in the first place, regardless of what you think his real motives were. But it’s also reflective of the truly breathtaking cynicism with which McConnell has been leading the GOP ever since the 2008 election. The priority, at every turn, has in his own words been to turn Obama into a one-term president by using powers of obstruction. But the American constitutional system can’t function if both parties play be these rules.