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Faith and Fear Paralyze Debt Ceiling Talks

The desperate wrangle over the debt ceiling and the federal deficit is not just another Washington war of wills but a confrontation between worldviews. What separates the parties is not just the difference of opinion common to all politics, but the profound division of belief more typical of religion.

That is one reason why the search for budget compromise has proven so frustrating to date. To the fiercest partisans on either side, the very notion of compromise is not only distasteful — it is downright sinful.

Many of the Republicans first elected in 2010 have shown especially intense faith in their principles, including the conviction that tax increases of any kind cannot be justified – even those that close loopholes or deny special tax-code subsidies to favored industries.

For these accolytes of the anti-tax party, the need to raise the debt ceiling – a regular chore of congressional housekeeping since 1917 – is the opposite of obvious. For them, raising the ceiling is tantamount to endorsing the spending of the Obama administration, which they consider an abomination. The very thought is so insupportable that it is easier for them simply to deny the debt ceiling needs to be raised — or that the danger of default exists.

Of course, there remains a corresponding orthodoxy on the left that sees the current debt levels as detritus piled up by the presidency of George W. Bush. Two wars were initiated without funding, as were two rounds of tax cuts. Take away those factors and the last decade would not have doubled the national debt, as it did. So, they say, let Bush's GOP clean it up.

For these partisans, the true budget problem is the reduced level of tax contribution from corporations and affluent individuals. Overall, U.S. tax revenues are down dramatically when compared to the 1990s or the 1970s.

But even to talk in terms of dollars and percentages may be missing the point. The current dispute is less about the measurable realities of government policy than about fundamental and even metaphysical meaning. What should society do? Should taxes be progressive or not? Should there be regulation of commerce or the workplace or the environment? What is the nature of the good?

Through much of its history, Congress and the president and the major political parties have generally gotten along by splitting the difference on issues involving money. The ratio of tax-and-spend shifts a bit to reflect electoral trends, but no one comes to Washington expecting to pitch a perfect game or bat a thousand. Not even Ronald Reagan did that.

The present standoff is an exception. Right now, the conservative motif is less about Milton Friedman's economics and more about the individualistic idealism of Ayn Rand.

The wide swing of voter sentiment from 2008 to the midterm election of 2010 has produced not just divided government but a confusion of tongues reminiscent of the biblical Tower of Babel. When President Obama holds a news conference at the White House and Speaker John Boehner another in the Capitol, they might as well be speaking in different languages.

So resolving the disputes of our time requires more than the traditional horsetrading skills of politics. We need something more akin to the interfaith diplomacy by which Jews, Muslims and Christians co-exist in Jerusalem. Or by which Sikh, Muslim and Hindu populations co-exist in parts of India.

Such sharing of existence and power can be achieved, with time and effort. But not if the negotiators are afraid to negotiate, afraid that any accommodation will cause their own people to denounce the deal and disown them.

This fear is the other factor complicating the debt-and-deficit discussions in Washington this year. It was apparent when Boehner backed off his tentative interest in a "grand bargain" to raise the debt ceiling and reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over a decade.

In 2010, Republicans in both House and Senate witnessed the downfall of longtime colleagues who voted for the bank bailout of 2008 (while Bush was still president) or who seemed too friendly with Democrats in the early months of the Obama presidency. In the current election cycle, venerable GOP senators such as Orrin Hatch of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana are struggling for renomination against strong Tea Party challengers.

It goes without saying that any Republican deviating from the party line on taxes risks a primary in 2012; hardliners are standing by to take them on. To some degree, Democrats who would cut entitlements also chance an intraparty challenge (although in their case the White House move to compromise might offer some cover).

Incumbents in either party also jeopardize their backing among activists, interest groups and financiers when they agree to do business with the other side. To fear such reprisals is natural for politicians of any stripe in any time.

Yet the combination of that fear with the demands of party dogma is death for the spirit of compromise. And that is why the negotiations between the president and Hill leaders keep going on, without going anywhere.

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