By utilizing the dual threats of a government shutdown and a default on the debts owed by the United States, House Republicans have moved far beyond traditional political horsetrading and into the realm of government by extortion.
Rush Limbaugh and the partisan crew at Fox News, of course, echo GOP talking points that say any shutdown or default will be President Obama's fault because he failed to bargain with Republicans. But that is akin to saying a warehouse owner is at fault for the fire that destroyed his warehouse because he refused the ransom demands of the arsonist who set the fire.
In a normal political negotiation, one party grants something the other side wants in order to get something they want. Republicans are pretending that the process going on now is exactly that. They are offering a trade: If the president will dump the healthcare plan that Congress approved and the Supreme Court ratified as constitutional, they will, in exchange, keep the government in business and allow the debt ceiling to be raised. But that's not a standard political swap. Keeping government functioning and preserving the integrity of government credit are not simply items on Obama's legislative agenda. They are core elements of operating a sound government and maintaining a healthy economy. They are not merely things that Obama wants, they are vital to the livelihood of every American citizen.
Only a fool or a fanatic would play chicken with something so important to everyone, but there seem to be plenty of fools and fanatics in the House Republican caucus. Not since the years leading up to the Civil War have members of Congress displayed such a rash willingness to risk the welfare of the nation for the sake of an ideological goal.
The current crop of congressional Republicans have more in common with the Weather Underground of the 1960s than they do with traditional Republicans, including the man they claim to venerate, Ronald Reagan. At various times during Reagan's presidency, impulsive members of Congress played politics with the debt ceiling. Here is what Reagan said about that:
"Congress consistently brings the government to the edge of default before facing its responsibility. This brinkmanship threatens the holder of government bonds and those who rely on Social Security and veterans benefits."
Nevertheless, with Reagan's words forgotten and with the government rolling toward a shutdown next week, House Republican leaders are concocting a new set of extortionate demands tied to the debt ceiling provision that expires on Oct. 17. It is a work in progress, but the latest scheme apparently would require the president to not only delay implementation of the healthcare plan for a year, but acquiesce to a long Republican wish list, including approval of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, increased offshore oil drilling, scuttling of new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, elimination of the new consumer protection agency and a ban on late-term abortions.
In other words, they are telling a president who was reelected by a healthy margin less than a year ago to forget about the platform he ran on and adopt the platform of the party that lost. Only then would Republicans agree not to wreck the economy – at least until the debt ceiling comes up for a vote again at the end of 2014.
As preposterous as this set of demands may be, there are still House Republicans who think it does not go far enough. They want more. It does not matter that they control only one house of Congress. It does not matter that they face a president who beat them in two elections. These guys do not appear to believe that elections matter.