Using brinkmanship in political negotiations (or in any of kind of negotiations) is not a bad thing. It's often a necessary tactic, particularly for the weaker party.
So it's interesting to consider what exactly is so all-fired terrible about the threat House Republicans have been making to refuse to raise the U.S. debt ceiling. It's no surprise that President Obama calls it "absurd," but the view is shared by lots of center-right and not-obviously-political thinkers and commentators, myself among them. Some GOP politicians and conservative groups seem to be coming to the same conclusion, although this may have more to do with political considerations than with principle (House Republicans' last visit to the debt ceiling brink, in 2011, turned out to be something of a bust with voters).
Yet Washington has had fiscal showdowns before, and the debt ceiling has repeatedly been used as a negotiating ploy. As the Republicans have been pointing out, lots of Democrats (among them one Senator Barack Obama in 2006) have spoken and voted against raising the debt ceiling in recent years.
So what's so wrong with debt ceiling brinkmanship? I've come up with three possible answers:
1) The debt ceiling is absurd. The original logic behind the debt limit was to get away from Congress having to approve ever single debt issuance by the U.S. government, instead giving Treasury the freedom during World War I to manage the country's debts as it saw fit, within bounds set by Congress. As deficit spending has become commonplace, this logic has become ever more tenuous. If the President were making the taxing and spending decisions, a Congress-imposed debt ceiling would make sense. But taxing and spending is something only Congress can do. Some Republicans have likened the debt ceiling to a credit card limit, but if so it's an awfully strange, self-defeating sort of limit — imposed by the borrower, not the lender. It's a bit as if, once your credit-card balance hit say, $20,000, you just stopped making payments. Which would be crazy.
So while members of Congress have in the past certainly used the debt limit as a negotiating tool and, more frequently (as with Obama in 2006), a hypocritical sop to gullible voters, they seem to have been aware that it was a tactic they should only take so far. They were posturing more than threatening. Which, given the absurdity of the ceiling, seems like a more reasonable approach. Then again, brinkmanship has been described in the pages of HBR as "the art of being unreasonable." So that can't really be the whole problem, can it?
2) The Republicans aren't credible negotiators on this topic. If you're going to practice brinkmanship, it's important to be clear on what you're going to the brink for. Some Republican House members (among them many of the Tea Party newcomers from 2010 and 2012) are pretty clear — they really do hate government spending, and would be happy to slash defense spending, Medicare, maybe even their own salaries. But over the past three decades, the overall GOP stance on federal spending could best be described as: We're for more of it when there's a Republican in the White House, and we say we're for less of it when there's a Democrat in the White House — but we reserve the right to attack that Democrat for any spending cuts that might affect old people or the military.
By contrast, Democrats in Congress are pretty consistently in favor of maintaining or increasing government spending; and while they do adjust their level of concern over deficits depending on who's in the White House, their mood swings on the topic have so far not been quite as extreme as the GOP's. The upshot is that there hasn't been a coherent or believable Republican stance on what should be cut in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. And it's really hard to horse trade when one side can't agree on which, if any, equines to proffer.
3) These are dangerous economic times. After the worst economic downturn in 70 years, amid a still-fragile recovery, threatening that recovery to make political points (or even achieve legitimate policy goals) seems counterproductive, even a bit disloyal. To believe that debt ceiling brinkmanship represents such a threat, though, you have to believe that this economic calamity befell the current Administration and wasn't caused by it, that deficit spending made the recession less severe, that the U.S. government's continued ability to borrow money in large quantities at low rates is essential to continued recovery, and that the last debt-ceiling standoff, while it did finally result in a deal (more on that below), slowed the recovery.
I believe all those things, and think the evidence for them, such as the many stimulus studies gathered up and summarized by Dylan Matthews, is pretty strong. But I know there are lots of alternate worldviews out there, and that to a certain extent this whole debt ceiling fight is, beyond the obvious partisan politics, a battle between the Establishment (if you can still call it that) and an insurgent fringe movement (the Tea Party) that thinks the Establishment has gotten the crisis totally wrong. Pointing out that this fringe movement's arguments seem a bit unhinged from reality isn't going to change any minds.
It's this clash of worldviews that has made the debt ceiling battles of the past couple of years so frightening for those of us who think running into the ceiling would be a really bad idea. For many members of the Republican House delegation, it's not really about brinkmanship — being intentionally unreasonable in pursuit of a goal. It's that they sincerely don't think they're being unreasonable. They don't believe hitting the debt ceiling would really cause a default, or cause major financial problems.
What's interesting, and at least a little bit encouraging, is that the worldviews aren't quite so far apart when it comes to looking into the future. There is pretty widespread consensus that, without serious action to bring government spending and revenue in line, the U.S. will eventually face a real fiscal crisis rather than a manufactured one. There's lots of disagreement over how much of the gap should be filled with taxes and how much with spending, and the politics of cutting and taxing will be excruciating. But it's a negotiation where compromise is at least theoretically possible, and the right kind of brinkmanship could bring results.
What would the right kind of brinkmanship look like? One idea currently gaining ground in conservative circles is that Republicans in Congress should make their stand not on the debt ceiling but on the sequestration measures (automatic budget cuts originally agreed to in the 2011 debt ceiling deal and then delayed by the New Year's Day fiscal cliff deal) set to kick in on March 1. They could also use their Congressional power over spending to actually, you know, cut spending in the budget and appropriations bills for fiscal 2014.
These approaches might slow economic growth (as they remove stimulus from the economy), but they wouldn't deliver as hard a slam as the end-of-year fiscal cliff would have or a debt ceiling debacle might. The political battles would be ugly, and there's no guarantee they'd result in a better long-run fiscal picture. But they would avoid the three big problems with debt-ceiling brinkmanship — such measures might be unpleasant, unpopular, even unreasonable, but they wouldn't be absurd; embracing them would give new-found coherence to the GOP's stance on spending; and they'd take place in a negotiating environment where everybody agrees that something has to give. Sounds like progress to me.