Political Animal


January 15, 2013 10:27 AM Impervious To Evidence

By Ed Kilgore

So in trying to guess what congressional Republicans will actually do at the conclusion of this game of chicken with the president over the debt limit, I would cite the precedent that no debt default has actually occurred before despite the occasional games of Russian Roulette. But on the other hand, there is the testimony of Josh Barro, who knows these birds a lot better than I do:

Politico reported today that top Republican staff members believe “more than half” their conference is prepared to push the government into default on some payments rather than cave on their demands for further spending cuts.
This isn’t because Republicans are reckless, as such. Many conservatives are sincerely convinced that excessive government spending poses a dire risk to the U.S. economy, and that even if missed payments have severe negative short-term economic consequences, they will be worth it if the long-term outcome is a smaller government.
The conviction that everything is about to come apart in the U.S. if the government maintains its current economic-policy course — through tremendous inflation, a debt crisis, and/or all of the productive members of society Going Galt — animates the huge Republican resistance to anything Obama proposes, even if that’s just the government paying the bills it has already run up. They’re trying their very hardest to save the country from a madman.
This sincere outlook is also insane, as you can see from how the stock and bond markets have behaved in recent years in response to various policy actions. The markets like fiscal expansion, monetary expansion and deals that keep the government operating as usual without drastic policy change. They do not cry out for massive disruption in pursuit of smaller government.
But the conservative worldview is robust because of its imperviousness to evidence. Economic data, like polling data or climate data, cannot get in the way of the narrative. Conservatives are sure that the Obama presidency will lead to an economic calamity, and they will prove it, if necessary.

Okay. Now “more than half” of House Republicans may not be sufficient to force a default if Democrats stay in line. And there’s no question John Boehner and other “responsible” Republicans will point to their own crazy people and claim Democratic concessions (of the sort the president has been ruling out) are necessary to keep the ranks of the crazy people from growing—perhaps even to include the Speaker himself.

WaPo’s Greg Sargent, who’s been closely watching the GOP twist in the wind on the debt default, sees a white flag in a National Review editorial calling for a debt limit increase limited (somehow) to existing obligations. Perhaps. But don’t underestimate the grip of ideology cited by Barro, or the dangers inherent in a situation where an awful lot of House Republicans will want to vote against a debt limit increase even if they don’t actually desire its defeat.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Anonymous on January 15, 2013 10:33 AM:

    My congressman, Bill Posey of Florida, just had an opinion piece in the local paper proclaiming the country's urgent need for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. It looks very much like a veiled promise to never, ever vote to raise the debt limit.

    On the other hand, Mr. Posey can expect to get some agitated phone calls from wealthy constituents who own lavish beach houses.

  • David Martin on January 15, 2013 10:41 AM:

    The 10:33 comment is mine; I forgot to include name and email.

    I'd add that during the last debt limit crisis, Mr. Posey thought there would be plenty of money for NASA (his district includes part of the Kennedy Space Center), the military (big Air Force presence in the district) and programs for retirees.

  • c u n d gulag on January 15, 2013 10:51 AM:

    We'd be better off trying to explain Quantum Physics to a rutabaga, than to try to explain simple basic Economics to Conservative politicians.

    They are impervious to math, science, and logic, and deny anthing that doesn't fit their Manichean world view.

    Somewhere, maybe Schrödinger's Republican politicians, are not as impervious as the ones we have throughout the US.

  • Josef K on January 15, 2013 10:53 AM:

    Okay. Now “more than half” of House Republicans may not be sufficient to force a default if Democrats stay in line. And there’s no question John Boehner and other “responsible” Republicans will point to their own crazy people and claim Democratic concessions (of the sort the president has been ruling out) are necessary to keep the ranks of the crazy people from growing—perhaps even to include the Speaker himself.

    I'd like to think Speaker Boehner, when push comes to shove, is more loyal to the well-being of the country than his immediate political fortunes, and thus will work with Pelosi to resolve this. The same goes for Senator McConnell if Reid moves forward himself.

    I'd like to think these things, but I likewise think that (a) both men believe they'll be spared the pain a default will inflict, and (b) neither have as sure a control on their conference as they pretend.

    I also fear that, ultimately, their loyalty is to themselves. Not their party's ideology, not their paymasters, just to their own material well-being (and they've taken ample safeguards to ensure it remains untouched).

    I fear neither man really cares what kind of damage they're about to inflict by letting a default hit. I fear they don't fear the same.

    I fear we live in interesting times, and may not live to see them become un-interesting again.

  • Anonymous on January 15, 2013 11:48 AM:

    "This isn’t because Republicans are reckless, as such. Many conservatives are sincerely convinced that excessive government spending poses a dire risk to the U.S. economy," I don't believe this for a second. They are reckless, they know they are in safe districts so they can posture and preen for the tea tantrum faithful back home. It's all about looking like big shots, and getting those checks from the Koch brothers, not any conviction that we are spending too much.

  • T2 on January 15, 2013 11:53 AM:

    It is obvious that when a Republican was president before Obama, none of these "crazies" were worried one bit about the Debt Limit, or Deficit, or unfunded wars, etc.
    Everything was fine then, and if you questioned anything George W. Bush did, you were a traitor. Yet here we are, four years later and Republicans across the nation are calling for secession and armed uprisings, and causing economic disasters around the world on purpose. It's no surprise that these Republican "crazies" are white men and the president is black. It's really so simple.

  • bigtuna on January 15, 2013 12:09 PM:

    I suspect most of us have a better than passing understanding of the annual federal budget, debt, and deficit spending. But I don't understand it all, so here are two questions.

    1. IF by the sprinkling of magic budget dust they actually passed a balanced budget, would there still be the need to borrow? Aren't there all sort of gimmicky "off budget" expenditures - e. g., Iraq war, that has to be paid off that still require borrowing new money? Presumably servicing the current debt is part of the budget.

    2. Has any balanced budget been put on the table? These assholes blather about amending the constitution; who has done the hard work, and laid on the line and proposed in black and white what the immediate 20+% reduction of federal spending will look like????

  • Kathryn on January 15, 2013 12:12 PM:

    The damage of the 2010 elections keeps on piling up, worse than imagined and we imagined plenty of destruction. That John Boehner is speaker of the house compounds this disaster. In previous times we knew the rhetoric was just fodder for the base, now the ignorance is believed and promoted by elected congress members. I would put nothing past them and John Boehner isn't up to being a manager at a Giant grocery store much less Speaker of the House. Just the other day, my husband and I received an email from his conservative sister and husband passing along a 2004 Bill Cosby statement about African-Americans and personal responsibility, so there you have an example of the mindset of wealthy, white folks who predictably live in a gated community on a golf course in South Carolina. I wonder if Bill Cosby knew what choice material he was serving up to bigots for recirculation. It's all about race in this country.

  • jjm on January 15, 2013 1:10 PM:

    If the GOP chickened out of forcing us really over the fiscal cliff, I get the feeling they won't take this drastic action.

  • ET on January 15, 2013 1:18 PM:

    These people are so convinced this is the way to go that almost nothing said or done BEFORE a shutdown will change their path. There is literally no cutting of government that will be enough to satisfy them. They will only learn the error of their thinking during and after a shutdown. And even then many will be all "but if X, Y, or Z had been done all would have been ok."

    I don't think that those that love this idea think there will be blow back. I really do think that these true believes think that everyone (at least those that aren't takers) will be grateful and they will not be "punished." They don't seem to understand that they will be punished for shutting the government down. And if they were to get the Medicare/Medicaid/SS cuts they want the would get punished for that as well.

  • Mimikatz on January 15, 2013 1:50 PM:

    Big tuna: There are two things here, the annual DEFICIT (excess of spending over revenues) and the cumulative DEBT. If we have a balanced budget (as happened in the last few years of the Clinton Presidency) we don't run a deficit for the year and don't add to the debt but we still have to pay off the cumulative debt. Whether things are on or off budget, they still contribute to the deficit and debt.

    The debt abd deficit are financed by Treasury selling bonds and notes of varying maturities, some of which matures every few months and has to be rolled over by sellIng new bonds or notes to pay the ones that come due. Debt service is paid off by new borrowing.

    The House put forward and passed the Ryan budget last year which, for all his blathering, did not actually begin to reduce the debt for something like 10 years. Congress likes to postpone the pain, which is consistent with what most economists think we need.

    Under Obama we have pretty consistently reduced the deficits every year, although the debt continues to grow (hence the need to raise the ceiling), Obama is daring the GOP to propose cuts the bring the budget into balance, but they want him to propose them, because most of the cuts that would make a difference are not popular. He will propose a budget which they will reject. Then they will pass a continuing resolution to fund the gov't at current levels while they bicker on. (Or maybe will frorce a shutdown.). One problem is that tax and spending bills must originate in the House and be passed there, then go to the Senate, which is why the Senate doesn't just pass a budget.

    But maybe you know all this.

  • bigtuna on January 15, 2013 4:40 PM:

    Mimi - thanks. I kind of knew most of this in a kinda sorta of way. The questions I asked were really answered by you - the Ryan budget still had a glide path to balance, and given what you said, not raising the debt ceiling is REALLY irresponsible, in that the debt grows due to their budgets. It seems like that unless you want to throw the economy into complete depression, you could not limit the debt ceiling and bring in a balanced budget right away - it would be catastrophic, no?

  • Mimikatz on January 15, 2013 6:16 PM:

    Yes. That is the problem here. Government spending fuels the economy, like any other spending, and cutting it sharply throws us into recession or worse. That is why few economists advocate big cuts now when the economy is still fragile. The debt problem is largely health care related and gets worse over time (but not forever) as the Boomers age. The best way to deal with it is to reduce health care costs and tweak revenues so they are higher and fairer, plus reduce defense and war spending. We just need to reverse the trend, not solve it all at once.