Suppose US President Barack Obama announced: “Unless Republicans agree to my proposal for gun control, I will use my authority as commander in chief to scuttle one aircraft carrier a week in the bottom of the ocean. I invite Republican leaders to come to the White House and negotiate a deal to preserve our military strength. I hope Republicans will work with me to prevent the loss of our carrier fleet. If the Republicans refuse to negotiate, I will be compelled to begin by scuttling the USS George Washington in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench, with 80 aircraft on board.”
In that situation, we would all agree that Obama had gone nuts. Whatever his beefs with Republicans, it would be an inexcusable betrayal to try to get his way by destroying our national assets. That would be an abuse of power and the worst kind of blackmail.
And in that kind of situation, I would hope that we as journalists would not describe the resulting furor as a “political impasse” or “partisan gridlock.” I hope that we would not settle for quoting politicians on each side as blaming the other. It would be appropriate to point out the obvious: The president had tumbled over the edge and was endangering the nation.
Today, we have a similar situation, except that it’s a band of extremist House of Republicans who are deliberately sabotaging the US economy and damaging US national security — all in hopes of gaining leverage on unrelated issues.
The shutdown of government by House Republicans has already cost the US at least US$1.2 billion, with the tab increasing by US$300 million a day. Some estimates are much higher than that.
The 1995 and 1996 shutdowns cost the country US$2.1 billion at today’s value, and the current one is also likely to end up costing billions — a cost imposed on every citizen by House Republicans, even as members of Congress pay themselves.
The government shutdown and risk of default also undermine US strength around the world. It’s not just that 72 percent of the intelligence community’s civilian workforce has been furloughed. It’s not simply that “the jeopardy to the safety and security of this country will increase” daily, according to US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr.
Nor is it just that the White House telephone number is now answered with a recording that says to call back when government is functioning again. It is not simply that several countries have issued travel advisories about visiting the US. It is not just that they are mocked worldwide, with the French newspaper Le Monde writing: “[Former US president Thomas] Jefferson, wake up! They’ve gone crazy!”
Rather, it’s that the strength and influence of the US derive in part from the success of its political and economic model. When House Republicans shut the US government down and left Americans teetering on the abyss of default, the US is left a diminished nation. Americans have less influence. They have less raw power, as surely as if they had fewer aircraft carriers.
Some Americans think that this crisis reflects typical partisan squabbling. No. Democrats and Republicans have always disagreed, sometimes ferociously, about what economic policy is best, but, in the past, it was not normal for either to sabotage the economy as a negotiating tactic.
In a household, husbands and wives disagree passionately about high-stakes issues like how to raise children. However, normal people do not announce that, if their spouse does not give in, they will break all the windows in the house.
Hard-line House Republicans seem to think that their ability to inflict pain on 800,000 federal workers by furloughing them without pay gives them bargaining chips. The hard-liners apparently believe that their negotiating position is strengthened when they demonstrate that they can wreck US governance.
The stakes rise with the approach of the debt limit and the risk of default — which the US Department of the Treasury notes could have an impact like that of the 2008 financial crisis and “has the potential to be catastrophic.” Astonishingly, Republican hard-liners see that potential catastrophe as a source of bargaining power in a game of extortion: We do not want anything to happen to this fine US economy as we approach the debt limit, so you’d better meet our demands.
In this situation, it strikes a false note for us as journalists to cover the crisis simply by quoting each side as blaming the other. That’s a false equivalency.
The last time House Republicans played politics with this debt limit, in 2011, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the US credit rating. In the long run, that may mean higher debt payments and higher taxes.
My opening example of a president scuttling naval ships was ludicrous. No one would do that. However. if the US defaults because of extremist House Republicans, the cost could be much greater to its economy and to its national security than the loss of a few aircraft carriers.