Have Republicans Shut Down Their Brains?

The GOP proposals are fiscally irresponsible, ludicrously short term, and certainly not worth having shut the government down to achieve. 

I've been trying to write about what's happening with the debt ceiling for hours, but every time I do, something new happens, and I have to start over. This morning the proposal on the table from Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell was to reopen the government ... but only until Jan. 15, because the Democrats hope that before then they'll be able to renegotiate the hated sequestration spending cuts, which are scheduled to take place shortly thereafter. It would raise the debt ceiling until Feb. 7, because the Republicans apparently want to have another theatrical negotiation in three months -- sort of an early Valentine's Day gift to the nation. There would be increased scrutiny of subsidy eligibility for health insurance. And the deal would delay for one year the reinsurance fees that health insurers pay in exchange for help defraying their costs if they end up with too many old and sick people in their pool.

Later in the day, it came out that the House Republicans had their own plan, which was the same in the first three elements, but pushed back the tax on manufacturers of medical devices for two years, instead of delaying the reinsurance fees for one. Republicans also wanted to get rid of insurance subsidies for members of Congress, the president, the vice president and the cabinet. At least give them this: The deal will cost them thousands of dollars a year, which they're willing to spend in order to make a statement. Or sort of willing; it later emerged that House Speaker John Boehner might not have the votes for his own proposal.

What you will notice about both proposals is that they are fiscally irresponsible, ludicrously short term and certainly not worth having shut down the government to achieve. The medical-device tax and the insurance tax may not raise much money, but if you're claiming to be the party of fiscal responsibility, and this is the fruit of two weeks spent having national hysterics over parks and veterans memorials, then someone has gotten badly confused about what the words "fiscal responsibility" mean when they're put next to each other like that.

To be sure, I am still of the opinion that any member of either party should be willing to vote for either of these deals rather than risk breaching the debt ceiling. In fact, I'm of the opinion that any member of either party should be willing to try that thing where you walk barefoot over hot coals rather than risk breaching the debt ceiling. At some point, markets are going to tell us that they're not kidding around any more, and they'd like us to agree on a budget -- any budget -- so that they can have some assurance they'll keep getting paid. Or else they'd like us to pay them a lot more money to refinance our $12.5 trillion in national debt. Playing games with the debt ceiling brings us closer to that day.

I'm with the Republicans on wanting smaller government. But I'm with the Democrats on this: These tactics are dangerous, and moreover, they don't even work. What they get us is this: tumbling from near-crisis to near-crisis, and in between deals that don't improve the budget outlook, but instead make it marginally worse because deep down, no one on either side wants to go to their constituents and tell them that they can no longer have services they've grown to like, or that they'll have to pay higher taxes to keep them. Last winter I wrote that an ADHD-afflicted day trader with a cocaine habit and six months to live has considerably better long-term planning skills than our current Congress. But that was a whole year ago; now we're doing deals that last for two months. What's next? The one-week continuing resolution? The hourly budget negotiations?

I'm not even arguing about whether these tactics are legitimate. I'm just pointing out that they don't work. It cannot possibly have been in the interests of the Republican Party to take such a brutal shellacking in the court of public opinion in order to secure these paltry concessions. And it's hard to see how it was in the interests of the country, either.

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    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

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