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October 08, 2013 11:53 AM Bring In the Anthropologists

By Ed Kilgore

I just had to chuckle in appreciation of the editor at RealClearPolitics who accompanied Caitlin Huey-Burns’ piece on John Boehner’s problems in obtaining a debt limit increase from his atavistic troops with the headline, “Boehner’s New Headache,” and a photo of Rep. Steve King (R-IA), and then the lede:

Catastrophic. Brutal. Dangerous. Terrifying.

That would be Steve-O all right.

Actually, Huey-Burns was deploying the four extreme adjectives to describe the consensus of expert opinion on the consequences of a debt limit breach, now just nine days ahead. Boehner’s “new headache” is that a significant number of House Republicans just don’t believe the experts, just like they don’t believe in global climate change, non-Austrian economics, or reproductive rights for women.

The problem for Boehner — and, therefore, the president — is that a number of GOP lawmakers don’t believe the country will in fact default if the debt ceiling is not lifted; as a result, they insist they won’t likely be spooked into raising it.
“We need to go back and redefine ‘default,’ ” said Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican. “Default would be if you couldn’t pay the interest and couldn’t manage the principle on our national debt. And that’s not going to happen. The resources are there. The cash flow is easily there to pay the interest on our debt.”

The most immediate answer to this argument is to ask: “Who cares?” The problem is not some sort of divine punishment for the sin of “defaulting,” but the universal estimation of economists and financial experts that global markets would freak out in an unprecedented way and rain down fire on us all. On top of that, of course, the preferred wingnut approach for dealing with a busted-debt-limit scenario, “prioritization of payments,” is itself a bit of a fairy tale “solution:”

The House previously passed measures to prioritize payments in the event of a breached deadline, but it’s not clear that following through is technically and legally doable, given that the government issues millions of different payments. The administration, for its part, has dismissed that option. “There is no option that prevents us from being in default if we don’t pay our bills,” Lew told CNN on Sunday during a round of television interviews. Several GOP lawmakers described Lew as a partisan and expressed skepticism about taking him at his word.
What is clear is that the country has never breached the limit before, whether lawmakers label doing so as default or not.

So hey, let’s gamble the entire economy on a proposition that no one but the congressional advocates for it believes in, right? But the “prioritizers” aren’t the worst of the problem:

[S]ome members don’t believe in raising the debt ceiling under any circumstances.

That’s right: High Tea Party doctrine holds to a “just say no” position on the debt limit, and some fine minds, like big-time rising star Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have suggested in the past that a debt default and the deep recession likely to follow it could be a good moral tonic for the country and its profligate “takers.”

So yeah, Boehner’s got some headaches all right. Some of his Members sorta like the idea of a debt default; others deny it can happen; and most of the rest of these birds are arguing over exactly which unobtainable prizes they can demand for letting the rest of us have jobs and a future.

At the moment, the House Republican Conference is the proper object of research not so much for political scientists as for psychologists, or maybe even anthropologists.

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.

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