Norm Ornstein is a very, very smart man, one of the smartest policy wonks in Washington. But I’m afraid his suggestion for a way out of the budget and debt ceiling impasse, as reasonable as it may seem to reasonable people, is destined for failure even if President Obama were to offer it.
The bottom line here is that we need some kind of agreement that will reopen the government and stop a downward spiral that uses default as a genuine and frightening political weapon. Realistically, qua Negotiation 101, it must provide the president, the speaker, and the Senate majority leader with the ability to declare victory or at least to avoid the perception of utter defeat. The two houses, two parties, and the president will still have to deal with one another on a myriad of issues for the next 40 months.
Negotiation now requires a cooling-off period—a clean extension of the debt ceiling, and a temporary CR. Then a reopening of the government for the year, with the understanding that a new commission will be established to discuss big long-term debt issues, is feasible.
But any concession by the president that is tied to a short-term CR or a short-term extension of the debt ceiling would be disastrous. Basic functions of government and the full faith and credit of the U.S. would become regular instruments of extortion in the future, resulting in periodic displays of American dysfunction and incompetence to the world, with serious economic consequences. But a concession on a different agenda—to take the debt ceiling permanently off the table as a hostage—is well worth it. What Obama needs to offer now is a proposal to make permanent 2011’s onetime “McConnell Rule.” Under that procedure, devised by the minority leader, the president could unilaterally raise the debt limit and Congress could have the option of blocking it by way of a resolution of disapproval. The president, in turn, could veto the resolution of disapproval; a vote of two-thirds of both houses would be required to override the veto.
In return for that action, if the president agreed to remove the tax on medical devices (and replace it with another source of revenue to help fund Obamacare), or agreed to some additional malpractice reform—neither action hitting at any essential core parts of the health care law—it would be a win-win. If, in addition, Boehner simply accepted yes for an answer on reopening the government, attaining the Ryan budget numbers, we could all move past this embarrassing crisis.
I think Obama would go for that. I think Reid and McConnell would go for it. I don’t think there’s a chance in hell Boehner would accept it, not because he doesn’t think it’s reasonable but because he’s terrified of the people within his own caucus who are not reasonable. That is the whole reason for this problem in the first place.