It’s A Great Day For American Political Institutions

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have officially unveiled their agreement to reopen the government and prevent us from breaching the debt ceiling. Speaker John Boehner has finally surrendered and will allow a vote on the bill; it is all but certain to pass with mostly Democratic support. Hurrah! We have avoided committing financial suicide, even if it took us until the 11th hour to strike a deal.

As the House bill fell apart yesterday afternoon, many people began wondering if a default was a real possibility. Fitch put the country on “Credit Watch Negative,” citing the debt-ceiling brinksmanship that has cast doubt on the ability of the federal government to uphold the full faith and credit of the United States.

Ezra Klein has argued recently that confidence in our political institutions may be a bubble ready to burst. In today’s Wonkbook, he cited the Fitch analysis and maintained that our political system is fundamentally broken:

Here’s why it does matter: Fitch is right. Does anyone really want to argue with this statement? “Although Fitch continues to believe that the debt ceiling will be raised soon, the political brinkmanship and reduced financing flexibility could increase the risk of a U.S. default.”

Fitch and S&P aren’t saying anything that the rest of the country doesn’t believe. They’re not even saying anything that Wall Street doesn’t believe. Everyone knows that American politics has become a game of Calvinball played with live ammunition. The question facing traders is when to finally bet that this is the day when someone doesn’t make it out alive.

What you see with the Fitch and S&P calls is that the market price on the U.S. political system doesn’t reflect what market participants are coming to believe about it: that a once capable and reliable system is now dysfunctional and unpredictable.

Derek Thompson says this repeated debt ceiling brinksmanship is “like Groundhog Day, but 720x longer and completely horrible.Neil Irwin and Matt Yglesias argue that we’ll be doing this all over again in a few months.

They’re all wrong.

Today is the best day for America’s political institutions in a long time. We have permanently disarmed the financial nuclear bomb known as the debt ceiling

Why do I say permanently? Because the McConnell-Reid deal confirms that Boehner and GOP House leadership were bluffing the entire time. President Obama has called for a clean CR and clean debt ceiling hike for weeks. The final deal is a clean CR, a clean debt ceiling hike and enforcement of existing law in Obamacare (income verification). If Boehner and Co. were willing to cause an international financial crisis, they surely wouldn’t accept this deal. The fact that they’re surrendering reveals that they will never let us default.

Whenever we hit the debt ceiling next, Boehner will have no credibility to threaten a U.S. default if Republicans do not get what they want. President Obama can refuse to negotiate again with the full knowledge that the speaker will cave at the last minute. The world now knows that Boehner will not let us breach the debt ceiling

This is what Democrats have been fighting for this entire time. They have created a new governing norm that eliminates any possibility that the United States won’t pay its bills. Our government may have a number of problems, but for the first time in Obama’s presidency, we can confidently say that the debt ceiling cannot be used as an extortion device. That’s a massive victory for our political institutions.

Would Democrats Support a Six-Month Clean CR?

It seems like we are slowly inching towards a compromise between Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has issued a new offer that includes a nine-month debt ceiling hike, a six-week clean continuing resolution, a delay of the medical device tax, greater income verification for Obamacare subsidies, a formal budget process and a yet-to-be-decided Republican concession. It’s unclear what that concession will be. But if you take the Democrat’s position that they will not negotiate over the debt ceiling or a clean CR, here’s what the deal looks like from their perspective:

Republicans get:                                                           Democrats Get:

  • Delay of medical device tax                                        •  Unknown Concession
  • Greater income verification
  • Formal budget process

The clean CR and debt ceiling increase are not part of the deal as they were never negotiated upon (although Republicans can return to their constituents and say they broke Obama’s promise not to negotiate on the debt ceiling, even if it isn’t actually true). John Boehner will break the Hastert Rule and allow something like this to pass, because he knows we can’t default. That’s how Democrats envision the final deal, at the moment.

But Republicans are upset. They think that Democrats are moving the goal posts on them by demanding a six-week, instead of a six-month, CR. Here’s Sen. Lindsey Graham:

You can blame us, we’ve overplayed our hand, that’s for damn sure. But their response, where the president and [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid] basically shutting everybody out, and when you try to negotiate, they keep changing the terms of the deal … it’s very frustrating.

So, what terms of the deal does Graham think Democrats changed? He doesn’t specify, but I think this all comes down to what Democrats thought they meant when they said they wanted a clean CR. They meant a CR that lasted six-weeks, or at least they are saying that’s what they meant. Republicans think Democrats meant that they would support a clean CR for any period of time. This is how Reid’s offer looks to them:

Republicans get:                                                           Democrats Get:

  • Delay of medical device tax                                       •  Six-week clean CR
  • Greater income verification                                        •  Unknown Concession
  • Formal budget process

This is the main sticking point right now. Republicans see the six-month CR as something Democrats said they would agree to by itself. Thus, the six-week continuing resolution is a concession for them. Meanwhile, Democrats see the opposite. The six-month clean CR would be a concession. When Democrats originally were calling for Republicans to open government, they didn’t say for how long. The House continually passed bills for six-week CRs that had absurd conditions on them. Democrats may have assumed that any CR would last for six weeks – but they never said so publicly (at least that I can find). Instead, they hammered the Republicans by telling them to pass a clean CR and reopen government, without any time horizon on those demands. Republicans want that clean CR to last six-months to lock in sequestration for longer. Democrats, of course, don’t.

There’s an easy way to figure out what Democrats would accept: Boehner could bring up a clean six-month CR in the House. Would Senate Democrats reject it? If so, it would contradict everything they have said about wanting Republicans to pass a clean CR. If they passed it, it would lock-in the cuts, a current goal of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Unfortunately for him, Boehner won’t bring such a bill to the floor due to the internal political dynamics of House Republicans.

Instead, McConnell has limited power to achieve a six-month CR. Americans overwhelmingly blame Republicans for the shutdown and the October 17 debt ceiling deadline is a few days away. He must make a deal and has limited leverage to do so. Meanwhile, Harry Reid truly believes that a six-month CR is not what Democrats meant when they said they’d support a clean CR. If he agreed to a deal with a six-month CR instead of a six-week one, this is how it would look to him and Senate Democrats:

Republicans get:                                                           Democrats Get:

  • Six-month clean CR                                                      •  Unknown Concession
  • Delay of medical device tax
  • Greater income verification
  • Formal budget process

That’s not acceptable to them. That’s the impasse we’re at now. It has nothing to do with Obamacare. Instead, it’s all about how long the clean CR should be and what Democrats meant when they said they wanted a clean CR. And the only person who can force Democrats to answer that question has his hands tied by extremists in his caucus. All as the clock slowly ticks towards a self-inflicted financial crisis.