Like most federal budget watchers, I assumed that the extremely negative political reaction to the federal government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 meant that tactic wasn’t likely to be threatened again, let alone actually used. That changed last year when a shutdown became the favored approach for many on Capitol Hill.
Although the timetable obviously was much more compressed, I thought much the same thing last summer after the extreme negative reaction to the fight over raising the federal debt ceiling also made that look less likely to happen again in the future. Despite the statements made by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other Republicans that using the increase in the federal government’s borrowing limit as leverage to win policy changes was now the new standard operating procedure, the downside was so great that the threat seemed to be mere words.
I was sure that was the case because, unlike the situation in 1995 and 1996, the negative response to the 2011 debt ceiling increase debacle was more than political.
Yes, it was a political nightmare: The approval rating for Congress and the White House fell during and immediately after the battle. But the negative reaction was also material because it resulted in the downgrading of U.S. debt by one of the three major rating agencies.
The downgrade occurred not just because of a concern about the government’s capacity to pay the debt, which wasn’t really questioned but because of what Standard & Poor’s said was the growing inability of the U.S. political system to deal with its fiscal problems. The result was a significant hit to the government’s financial reputation. Most analysts I’ve spoken with are convinced that, were it not for the economic woes in Europe, U.S. interest rates would be much higher as a result.
It seemed so clear that not using the debt ceiling as a weapon had become the minimum price elected officials would have to pay to prevent another possible downgrade that I thought there was no way it would happen again.
That’s why the first major activity by a senior elected official on this topic since then — Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) choreographed events last week in which he repeatedly said he would prevent the debt ceiling increase that will be needed at the end of 2012 or the start of 2013 from happening unless he got what he wanted — was so exceptionally irresponsible.
I’m using the word “irresponsible” very deliberately.
Boehner is more than just a Member of Congress. As Speaker, he is next in line to the presidency after the vice president and the most powerful person in the House. That magnifies the importance of everything he says. Every Boehner pronouncement about an international issue, for example, is closely monitored around the world. Although the executive branch takes the lead in foreign policy, what the Speaker says typically generates an immediate response and, therefore, he usually treads carefully in this area.
I wish the same were true about what the Speaker does in connection with the federal budget. The Constitution gives Congress specific fiscal policy responsibilities — that makes what this or any Speaker says something that makes headlines and is taken very seriously.