The Silver Lining in the Debt Deal
Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Aug 5, 2011
Most people watched the debt limit debate with disgust and deservedly so. But instead of reinforcing your well-honed cynicism, let’s note some of the more positive aspects of the fight.
First, the fight was over principle. Democrats believe that government is the only institution that can promote justice for all, whether by regulating greedy corporations and individuals or taking care of the disadvantaged. Republicans believe the market and individuals will make better decisions than government and the foundation of the republic is free, independent citizens.
Yes, the fight was over budget numbers, taxes, and political advantage, but behind that are values that both sides hold dearly. Both sides want to promote the common good but they have vastly different conceptions of the common good and this makes compromise difficult. This fight should reassure those who think that are leaders are politically and morally bankrupt.
Second, leadership was rewarded. Congressional Republicans opened themselves to political attack by presenting a plan – the Ryan plan – to reduce the budget deficit. The Democrats presented no plan. Thus when the discussions turned to what should be done, both sides basically worked from the Republican plan. The simple fact is that if two people are building a house and one brings a blue print and other does not, the two people will work from the blue print no matter how flawed.
Moreover while “balance” is necessary, the president’s failure to develop and publicly defend a plan communicated a lack of resolve. This weakness reduced the bargaining advantage of the Democrats and resulted in a deal that tilted strongly toward Republicans. Hopefully, the president will learn and develop a specific plan to sell to the joint committee and the public.
Third, the “adults” prevailed. The failure to make a deal would destroy confidence in the U.S. economy and harm the economy even more. Knowing this, the adults, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), eschewed the extreme on both sides arguing against any compromise to develop a plan and then worked with the president and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to deliver large bipartisan majorities for the deal.
The task of the specially created joint committee to find further reforms in entitlement programs and the tax code is difficult. However, the adult behavior of the congressional leaders provides some hope an agreement can be reached.
Fourth, the system worked. Many have described the government as “dysfunctional” because of the fight, but they seem to forget that the Founders created a system designed to prevent laws from passing. The creation of separate institutions with separate ambitions due to their terms of office, differing constituencies, and different sizes ensures that gridlock occurs. Moreover, the system ensures that major policy is largely bipartisan because of the need to create coalitions among districts, states, and the nation.
And while the creation of the joint committee is an acknowledgement that major reform will face difficulties through the regular process. The requirement that party leaders appoint the members and that both chambers take an up-or-down vote is a recognition that the parties will make the decision together and that the times require special procedures.
Finally, the politicians kept their promises. Two years ago, Democrats enacted health care reform because they promised to. This year Republicans have cut the budget because they promised to. That is the behavior of principled politicians responding to a national need and not politicians captivated by special interests. Moreover, the politicians’ behavior makes it easier for voters to make decisions because the politicians are basically doing what they say they will.
This article originally appeared in the August 5th edition of The Jackson Sun