Washington normal has become rounds of pessimism

WASHINGTON — Welcome to the new Washington normal: endless rounds of legislative carjacking.


Perhaps that's unduly grim — pessimism fueled by the exhaustion of the moment. Perhaps, having peered into the abyss of political gridlock and economic collapse, those Republicans who pushed things to the brink this time will be chastened on the next round.


Perhaps, but I'm sticking with pessimism. One side wanted the car, had a gun and wasn't afraid — certainly not afraid enough — to use it. The other had a child in the back seat.


Those who blame Democrats or President Obama for being lousy negotiators fail to appreciate the fundamentally asymmetric nature of the current bargaining. You cannot practice the art of the possible with a party that insists on finger painting with a single color: spending cuts only.


The coming crisis points are manifold. The current spending deal — the one reached on the brink of government shutdown — expires in September. Extended unemployment benefits run out at the end of the year. The temporary cut in the payroll tax expires.


The evenly divided and therefore easily deadlocked supercommittee is supposed to report just before Thanksgiving. Congress is supposed to vote by Christmas. Absent agreement, the trigger — across-the-board cuts to defense and domestic spending —— gets pulled shortly after New Year's.


Luckily, the bullet moves slowly — the cuts don't take effect until 2013. Meanwhile, looming over the rest of 2012 will be the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, or, more precisely, the Obama extension of the Bush tax cuts.  

There is no shortage of hostages, and no reason to imagine that the hostage-takers are anything but emboldened. If anything, the worry is that the tactic extends beyond the fiscal arena. Case in point: the refusal of Senate Republicans to confirm anyhead to the new consumer financial agency unless the law is changed to their liking.


The surprise wasn't that things went down to the wire. They always do. If Sasha and Malia get their homework done days in advance, they are unusual children. Washington, like the rest of the world, works on deadline.

The surprise was that the ordinary rules of political physics, of opposing gravitational forces counterbalancing each other, appeared to have been suspended. Usually these disputes unfold in choreographed fashion, toward a predictable if 11th-hour ending. This one was less minuet than mosh pit.


I write this somewhat sheepishly, as someone who believed that the need to lift the debt ceiling could be a useful, action-forcing event. But I underestimated the sway of the tea party and the unshakeable grip of the no-new-taxes ideology on the modern Republican Party.

Administration officials believe that the relentless arithmetic of the budget, combined with the threat of the trigger and the expiration of the tax cuts, will ultimately convince Republicans to give on taxes. They are correct on the numbers: the lesson of the House Republican budget plan is that getting the debt under control without raising additional revenue would require cuts of an unthinkable magnitude.


But the conventional wisdom of the modern Republican Party is one that denies this basic math. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News' Neil Cavuto that neither he nor House Speaker John Boehner would appoint any members to the new committee willing to raise taxes — and that even if they unexpectedly strayed, such a deal would never pass the House.  

Maybe this is what Republicans need to say up until the moment that they stop saying it. After all, the speaker flirted with the notion behind closed doors. But Boehner's smack-down at the hands of his party does not suggest eagerness for a repeat.  


There is a core group of Republicans and Democrats in Washington who yearn to escape the shackles of solution-stifling party orthodoxy: no taxes on the right, no benefit cuts on the left.

Politicians tend to be a glass-half-full bunch — how could they persist otherwise? In conversations with lawmakers of both parties over the last few days, many expressed hope that renewed public focus on the debt had created demand for future action.

But this was coupled with a recurrent undertone of deep concern about whether the modern political system remains capable of avoiding future trips to the brink. President Obama questioned whether the country has a "AAA political system to match our AAA rating."

If there were a rating agency for political systems, it would be moving to downgrade.

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