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Here's why Congress has such a hard time on the debt limit

WASHINGTON — Why is it so hard to get a debt limit agreement?

Gridlock is hardly a new Washington phenomenon, yet this year's drama over raising the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling has defied — many would say rewritten — the rules of Washington give and take.

The process has become unusually ideological, personal and ugly. Going to the brink of chaos is considered a smart political strategy in some circles. So is staging public walkouts of bipartisan negotiations — three times so far by Republicans. Or having a normally cool, press-shy president hold three news conferences in two weeks, deliver a nationally televised address and feud openly with the speaker of the House of Representatives.

Yet this debt struggle is really no surprise to veteran Washington analysts, because it's the culmination of years of political upheaval.

"The fight over this issue is a symptom of a larger problem," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank.

That problem is how the rules of political engagement have changed for the worse. The change was sparked partly by the new media world, where every sentence and procedural vote can trigger a national reaction instantly.

But it's also changed shaped by recent events: An increasingly frustrated electorate continues to endure the most sluggish economy in a generation. The conservative movement sees its revolution regaining vigor. The two political parties savor their prospects of winning big in 2012, and see their opponents' leaders as fragile.

Then too, House districts are designed now to be politically homogenous, so that their representatives can be ideologically rigid and not have to appeal to voters with other views. Lawmakers are often elected without much motivation to reach to the middle. "There is now no overlap ideologically at all between the parties," Ornstein said.

Similarly, Senate rules make 60 votes necessary to get anything done in the 100-member chamber, giving great leverage to the minority party or even small groups of senators willing to extort concessions from the majority in exchange for their precious votes to amass 60.

Senate Republicans gained six seats in November and now have 47, more than enough to prevent Democrats from gaining the 60 votes needed to get anything done.

In addition, today's era of "the permanent campaign" gives fundraisers and special interest groups more clout over how lawmakers behave, making compromise difficult.

These developments helped shape the 2010 congressional elections, when Republicans regained firm control of the House and Democrats saw their Senate margin shrink by six.

"That election was one of the most important in American history," said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and a former Senate aide.

"It was a moment in American life with a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear," he said, because of the reeling economy and anger over the 2010 health care law, which was seen by many as an already out-of-control, broke government overreaching.

In addition, people were still seething that the federal government bailed out big banks while consumers saw their nest eggs shrink.

"We're still in the backwash of that election," Baker said.

That's turned a once-routine Washington money dispute into a crisis, one with stakes so high that the government could default Tuesday for the first time in history.

Here's what experts identify as the deeper causes behind the current debt deadlock:

- The new media. "Congress is now often show and tell," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

Before the Internet age, roughly 15 years ago, a lawmaker could cast an unpopular vote and "get away with it," said Steven Greene, an associate professor of political science at North Carolina State University.

Today, special interest groups watch every vote and monitor every statement, ready to blast emails in protest or support. Talk radio and cable TV provide heated commentary 24-7, often from strong ideological viewpoints that tolerate no moderation.

All this attention and slanted analysis, said Ornstein, creates "a different narrative and universe."

- The conservative revolution. It's been building since William F. Buckley Jr. founded the conservative National Review in 1955 and Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater's "Conscience of a Conservative" was published five years later. Their message of limited government, more individual responsibility and strong national defense has been reshaped over the years — some would say twisted into an ideological straitjacket that even Ronald Reagan, the conservative icon, never would have accepted.

Still, now "they think they have revolution in their grasp," said Ornstein. The tea party phenomenon is the most animating force in contemporary American politics.

- The new breed. The 240-member House Republican caucus includes 87 freshmen, many elected with tea party backing. Combined with veteran hardliners, many GOP House members are unyielding in their demand for deep spending cuts and smaller government. Many are so alarmed at recent skyrocketing federal debt that they're wary of raising the debt limit at all — even though authorities warn that could trigger a financial crisis and kick the economy back into recession.

"We have a very large influx of people who have never served here before," said Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., who first came to the Capitol as a staffer in 1969. "Many come from the business world, and many don't understand how we keep piling up all this debt without any way to pay for it."

The tea party movement intimidates some veteran lawmakers. Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas, said many are "frightened to death of a right-wing primary opponent. Thus some potentially reasonable folks simply have withdrawn from the process of compromise."

- Election calculations. Add to this feisty mood a sense in GOP circles that next year looks bright. Republicans already have a 240-193 House majority, and 23 of the 33 Senate seats up in 2012 are now held by Democrats or independents who caucus with them.

Not to mention the presidency, where Barack Obama's approval ratings have remained under 50 percent for a long time. That doesn't make Republicans eager to compromise; they see prospects of victory just ahead, on their terms.

- The permanent campaign. "The debt issue is a fundraising issue," said Holman of Public Citizen. And a mobilizer of activists on all sides.

Crossroads Grassroots Political Strategies, a conservative group with ties to former Bush administration political guru Karl Rove, this summer launched a $20 million ad campaign targeting vulnerable Democratic incumbents. Its most recent ads, launched Tuesday, feature local constituents urging senators not to raise taxes.

Groups sympathetic to Democrats are eagerly using the spending issue as well. The Rebuild the Dream movement held meetings in an estimated 1,600 homes one weekend this month, and it is writing a "Contract for the American Dream." Its top ideas include substantial reductions in military spending and having corporations pay more taxes.

Both sides see the debt issue as crucial in the 2012 elections. Incumbents are often judged by votes on big issues — see health care — and none is likely to be bigger this year than the debt.

- Shaky leaders. The problem for both the GOP and for Obama is that "none of the players is really solid, even in their own parties," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group.

Obama and House Speaker John Boehner constantly have to reassure their bases that they can be trusted. The left is wary of Obama for cutting earlier tax and deficit deals with Republicans, largely on their terms.

And he failed to lay the political groundwork necessary to prepare the country to confront deficits and debt. He ignored recommendations from the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson panel late last year, which outlined a plan to cut deficits by $4 trillion over 10 years. His February budget envisioned adding $9 trillion to the debt over 10 years. Only in the past few months has he urged serious debt reduction; even then, he hasn't put forth a specific plan in public.

On the right, conservatives have long been suspicious of Boehner, a veteran deal-maker. He began his current leadership climb in 2006, where his collegiality proved a welcome change from a House GOP leadership embroiled in scandal. Despite a solid conservative voting record, Boehner constantly must prove to the right that he's on their side. His much-touted debt reduction plan, unveiled Monday, had to be rewritten Wednesday because the right wasn't satisfied.

Past speakers probably could have convinced their rank and file that they've already won the battle — after all, Senate Democrats support a no-tax plan and $1.2 trillion in spending cuts.

"Previous speakers might have pulled this (argument) off," said Loomis, the University of Kansas professor. "Boehner would like to, but he can't."

In the past, there was usually an assumption that something would be worked out, but that's no longer true.

"There are very few institutionalists in Congress today," said Loomis, meaning lawmakers committed to making their institution, the nation's legislature, discharge its responsibilities even when that requires doing something unpopular — "and even if you'd like to be one, it's difficult."

Polls offer little guidance to politicians seeking a way out.

Gallup Poll editor-in-chief Frank Newport called polling on the debt issue "complex."

"They really do believe politicians should compromise, but there is a very significant sentiment from the American public that spending cuts need to be involved."

Even that message has nuances.

"Get to the specifics" about what spending to cut, said Newport, "and they're less positive."


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