Next budget-slicing hostage drama only seven weeks away

Commentary | By Craig Gurian |

August 4, 2011 — Despite widespread belief to the contrary, the agreement on the debt ceiling does not mean that there is a budget deal in place through 2012, and does not guarantee that government operations will continued uninterrupted through that time. Indeed, a shutdown of at least some government agencies as a result of an impasse on proposed spending as between Republicans and Democrats would be likely as of the fiscal year that begins this Oct. 1 were it not for the fact that President Obama and Democratic members of Congress apparently have no setting other than “surrender.”

The debt ceiling agreement did not obviate the need that exists every year for appropriations bills to be passed for every element of government spending. Not surprisingly, the bills passed by or being considered by the House reflect GOP priorities, the same GOP that passed Paul Ryan’s budget resolution earlier this year (the Senate has not acted on any appropriations bills other than that covering military and veterans spending).

As Craig Jennings, director of federal fiscal policy at OMB Watch, told my colleague, Mike Alberti, GOP members of the House “will be able to change their spending levels however they want” in advance of Senate and Presidential action. “We could be in for yet another budget fight starting at the end of September,” Jennings added.

What would prevent the GOP from saying that the agreement on the debt ceiling was a “first step” (an echo of what the President has said), and that Republicans are not prepared to forego a golden opportunity to slash domestic spending still further? Nothing.

Let’s put it succinctly: there isn’t a single person in the United States who believes that President Obama will assert and stick to the position that he would veto such appropriation bills even at the cost of a government shutdown, is there?

The larger problem, of course, is that there has never been a “one time only” option when it comes to dealing with hostage-takers. As Michael Shear pointed out in The New York Times on Wednesday, “The very real threat of forcing the nation into a first-ever financial default — along with the potential for economic calamity — will forever be a powerful tool used by lawmakers and presidents alike, [Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell] predicted.”

Shear’s conclusion was that, “in the long term it may be impossible for Washington to put the debt ceiling genie back in the bottle.” His explanation: “Because in the end, hostage-taking works.”

Actually, hostage-taking worked back in December (surrender on eliminating tax cuts for the wealthy), in April (surrender on funding level for continuing resolution), and this week (surrender on the debt ceiling) only because the operating principle was “one doesn’t negotiate with hostage-takers…unless the threat made by the hostage-takers is really scary.”

In other words, no principle at all.

One never negotiates with hostage-takers because otherwise one is forever enslaved to them. That principle stems not from the belief that hostage-takers will necessarily back down the first or second time, but that the cost (or casualties) resulting from the resistance to hostage taking are a necessary cost of freedom and democracy.

So, even leaving aside the stock market’s (perhaps transient) mini-crash of Aug. 4, it turns out that there are worse risks than incurring a default, namely becoming a permanent hostage. We will see that as the FY 12 appropriations process plays out.

And the restoration of a belief that hostage-taking will be resisted in the future will be far more difficult — and far more bloody — to establish than if backbone had been shown in the first instance.

Don’t be surprised, though, if most media continue to exhibit Stockholm syndrome: identifying with the hostage-takers, not with those resisting them.


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