Fund government, then negotiate

As the government shutdown reaches the one-week mark, here's how much progress has been made toward restoring order in Washington: Not much. At least the House of Representatives demonstrated some consistency when it voted 407-0 to give back pay to furloughed federal employees — after all, why should Congress be the only ones getting paid for doing nothing?

Actually, things have gotten worse. What started as a right-wing effort to defund Obamacare has now morphed into something bigger. As might be expected, House Speaker John A. Boehner is now tying it together with the debt ceiling which, if left untouched, could lead the nation into default by Oct. 17, according to administration officials.

That means the stakes are much higher. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew says only Congress has the power to keep the nation from defaulting on its bills. And right now, Mr. Boehner (and the tea party followers who seem to be calling the shots) are not inclined to either finance government or lift the debt limit without major concessions from the White House.

Concessions? Negotiations? All those descriptions sound pretty reasonable. But that's not what's going on here.

A "negotiation" takes place when two or more parties are in a dispute, and rather than one getting a whole pie, they split it. Most everything that emerges from a legislative body is a compromise of some sort — including the Affordable Care Act, which lacked the "public option" Barack Obama promoted when he first ran for president in 2008.

Passing a "clean" continuing resolution keeping government fully operating at funding levels the GOP has already endorsed is no compromise. It's the status quo. Raising the debt ceiling isn't a concession either — it allows the nation to pay the bills Congress has already incurred and prevents the possibility of a government default, which would hurt the economy, raise borrowing costs and increase the federal deficit.

So when Speaker Boehner lashes out at President Obama for failing to negotiate, one has to ask, what is this thing he describes as negotiation? House Republicans are not merely leveraging their political position — as some dryly claim — they are threatening to do grievous harm to the global economy and the American public.

The gun isn't raised the Mr. Obama's head or to the Senate's. The Democrats have no particular stake in passing a continuing resolution or in raising the debt ceiling other than keeping public order and doing what any reasonable person expects Congress to do. No, the gun is raised at the nation as a whole. That's why descriptions like "ransom" and "hostage" are not mere hyperbole, they are as close as the English language gets to accurately describing the GOP strategy.

Mr. Boehner says he wants to reduce federal spending. That's a reasonable goal. But he's not engaged in a reasonable strategy toward achieving it. Putting the squeeze on Democrats (holding up their legislative initiatives, for instance) is reasonable. Threatening to ruin the economy and hurt millions of Americans is not. See the difference? The only thing the Republicans want to negotiate is the size of the ransom. It's telling that so many in Congress believe the House could pass a clean CR today — if Mr. Boehner would allow the Democrats and moderate Republicans the chance.

President Obama is not without blame in this, of course. Surely his biggest mistake was making concessions when the debt ceiling became an issue two years ago. That gave us sequestration and the mindless, automatic spending cuts that looked so ridiculous they wouldn't last but which have instead become standard operating procedure.

But that experience demonstrates why he and Senate Democrats can't "negotiate" now. The House will merely threaten the public welfare again tomorrow or the day after, and we'll be back in deep-crisis mode. The House must reopen government and raise the debt limit, and then the two sides can negotiate a federal budget.

Tea party stalwarts will, of course, complain that Democrats will then resist major cuts to the budget and will push to raise taxes instead. That's correct. They'll say they can't make such a compromise or they'll be tossed out of their gerrymandered districts in the next primary. And that appears to be the real conundrum — the Republican Party's internal politics.

But here's the real bottom line: Our political system corrects for such disputes at the ballot box. If the majority of America doesn't want Obamacare and only supports spending cuts to reduce the deficit, they will get a chance to vote for candidates who reflect that view soon enough. (In fact, we might note that they had that opportunity a year ago and chose a different course.) Mr. Boehner's willingness to court disaster is already hurting the nation's financial markets and could do far worse damage in a matter of days. It's time for Mr. Boehner to put down the gun and put more faith in the democratic process.

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