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Biggest economic threat: Congress

In an appearance on "60 Minutes" on Sunday, President Barack Obama conceded that he has a new focus for his last year in office: Making sure Congress doesn't wreck the economy. That the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, even as a political lame duck, has to devote himself to such a thankless chore is a pretty sorry state of affairs.

Whether the next House speaker is Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Florida's Rep. Dan Webster or somebody else who both the extremists in the Republican Party's Freedom Caucus and the more rational, establishment-oriented party members can back, the immediate future for that chamber looks bleak. The tea party wing doesn't have the votes to impose its will on the federal government — at least not while Mr. Obama is still in office and the Democrats hold enough seats to block a 60-vote majority in the U.S. Senate — but it does have enough power to make the House majority hopelessly dysfunctional.

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The announced resignation of Speaker John Boehner was the first blow, and the abrupt decision by Rep. Kevin McCarthy to withdraw from the race to succeed him was the second. That Mr. Ryan, with perhaps the broadest support of any of the potential candidates, has shown such disinterest in taking the job may well be viewed as the third. How can anyone walk away from arguably the third most powerful position in government? Perhaps he can at a time when whoever is given that job is destined to be treated more like a member of Dick Cheney's hunting party — a victim of "friendly" fire — than a leader who can actually put together the votes to get things done.

The average American probably doesn't care who occupies the job of speaker. It's one of those positions that talk show hosts and pollsters like to ask regular Joe Bag-of-Doughnuts about to demonstrate the public's disinterest in inside-the-beltway decision-making. But a House majority that is willing to potentially shut down the government or refuses to raise the debt ceiling (which accomplishes much the same thing)? That's going to get everyone's attention really fast, particularly as the U.S. economy takes a multi-billion-dollar hit.

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The GOP hard-liners don't want to simply have a voice in picking a speaker, they want rule changes that will put greater authority in the hands of the rank-and-file than in leadership. It's a recipe for greater chaos with more bills, more amendments, more divisions. If the extremists in the party aren't willing to compromise now, imagine what the future may hold if they have greater authority to lock down the House? And this isn't some problem for the distant future: The latest budget deadline is just weeks away on Dec. 11 (thanks to the recently-approved continuing resolution), and the debt ceiling might come to a head even earlier — perhaps by the end of the month.

Failure to raise the debt ceiling above the current $18.1 trillion could lead to a loss of confidence in U.S. securities and sharply higher borrowing costs. How exactly that might play out has been hotly debated, but it could raise debt costs by tens of billions and potentially plunge the economy into recession. And for what? Failing to raise the debt ceiling doesn't save taxpayers a dime — it's closer in equivalence to a consumer not paying credit card debt, as it just gets more expensive and doesn't take the U.S. off the hook.

No wonder President Obama is watching the House GOP caucus so closely and scaling down his personal ambitions for the remainder of his term. If Congress can't get much done now, what's it going to be like now that the Freedom Caucus has a Boehner notch in its political gun belt? It doesn't help that the Republican "outsider" candidates running for president seem to rise in the polls not by advocating reason or temperance but by outrage, anger and flamethrowing. House conservatives may think they're only fulfilling the wishes of the voters, but see how far that gets them if, for whatever reason, the government stops paying its bills and the unemployment rate skyrockets. That's something the outgoing speaker understood. The next speaker still might, but it won't matter if the House ends up politically paralyzed anyway.

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