Boehner’s Mess and Democrats’ Obligations

There is a subtle difference between pledging to be responsible and vowing not to be irresponsible. In the standoff over the federal budget that has shut down the U.S. government, Democrats could stand to do more of the former, and Republicans less of the latter.

Here was Speaker of the House John Boehner last weekend: “I don’t want the United States to default on its debt. But I’m not going to raise the debt limit without a serious conversation about dealing with problems that are driving the debt up. It would be irresponsible of me to do this.”

Let the grammarians parse the triple negative and unclear antecedent. If what he’s saying is that it would be irresponsible not to raise the debt limit, then he should spare the nation, the markets, the economy -- and, not incidentally, himself -- a lot of trouble and do so sooner rather than later.

Boehner doesn’t want to engage the topic, but the crucial point of this conflict bears repeating: The policy goals Republicans failed to achieve in Congress, and failed to have ratified by voters at the polls in 2012, cannot legitimately be extracted through threats to the operations or creditworthiness of the U.S. government. That principle will be as true and necessary 10 days from now, when the U.S. is likely to hit the debt ceiling, as it is today.

Boehner’s chief political problem is not with Democrats in the Senate or the White House but with the Tea Party conservatives in his own caucus (and in the Senate). No matter what he decides -- and he can bring a bill to the floor even if it is unlikely to win majority Republican support -- he will have to reckon with them and their unsteady demands eventually.

The Democrats have a role to play in this drama, too. If President Barack Obama is smart, he will quietly provide a fig leaf or two to help the speaker out of his jam. Obama may be fed up with recklessness on Capitol Hill, but sometimes it’s better politics to help an opponent than to let him flail. With that in mind, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should, frankly, zip it. Issuing a taunt about Boehner’s “credibility problem,” as Reid did today, only makes a bad situation worse.

At this point, arguing over whether this situation is of Boehner’s own making is counterproductive. The priority now is getting out of it. Obama cannot afford to allow the debt ceiling to be ransomed as he did in 2011, and his desire to appease an opponent in free fall is unlikely to be acute. Nonetheless, there are modest concessions -- rhetorical and real, such as agreeing to rescind the $3 billion a year tax on medical devices that was part of the health-care law -- that he can offer.

Boehner should then promptly bring legislation to the House floor to fund the government and lift the debt ceiling to cover spending already authorized by Congress.

Prolonging the shutdown at the cost of jittery markets and rising economic pain is not just senseless and self-destructive. It’s unforgivable. It may be too late for John Boehner to get the country -- and his party -- out of this mess with his job intact. But he can still keep his reputation, and responsible Democrats should do what they can to make that easier.


To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.