This last weekend, Ross Douthat argued that Republican intransigence on the deficit was not really evidence that the party had lost its marbles. The party, he postulated, was shrewdly attempting to maximize its leverage. Douthat's argument hinged on the premise that Republicans had to account for the fact that any budget deal would come with future tax hikes when the Bush tax cuts expire:
The White House hasn’t made spending concessions just because the president wants to campaign as a deficit cutter next year. It has made concessions because it knows that taxes are already scheduled to go up when the Bush-era tax rates expire at the end of 2012.
If Obama gains a second term, Congressional Republicans will have to choose between a deal that lets the top rate go back to 39 percent (a $700 billion tax increase over 10 years) or no deal at all (a $3.8 trillion tax increase). Obviously, this dilemma won’t exist if President Mitt Romney occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But Obama’s re-election is the more likely scenario, meaning that any deal struck this summer comes with a very large asterisk attached: *Includes tax increases to be named later.
My TRB column, which suggests that the Republicans are in fact nutty, points out that this premise is false:
Press accounts reported that Obama, distressingly, proposed to make future revenue increases from the Bush tax cuts’ expiration—the tax hike Douthat warns will happen later—the source of the revenue in the deal. In other words, he was willing to bargain to get something he could have gotten by doing nothing if he wins reelection. What’s more, Obama offered to prevent any increase in upper-bracket tax rates in 2013, as long as Republicans agreed to close tax loopholes to make up the revenue. That is the deal Republicans refused—a deal to lock in the top-level Bush tax rates, while raising more revenue from a cleaner tax code, while getting Obama’s sign-off on large-scale cuts to entitlements.
Meanwhile, the evidence that's leaked out about internal Republican deliberations suggests the Republicans are not shrewdly trying to maximize their leverage. They're just barking mad. Robert Draper's profile of House Whip Kevin McCarthy peers in on the House caucus's thinking about the debt ceiling:
The freshmen have not been shy on this subject, either. McCarthy informally polled them when they first came to town in November for orientation. All but four of them said they would vote against raising the ceiling, under any circumstances. Then McCarthy (along with Ryan and the House Ways and Means chairman, Dave Camp) began conducting more listening sessions. The whip recognized that it would be counterproductive to lecture the freshmen about the economic hazards of not raising the debt ceiling. He also realized that it’s one thing to pass a budget — which in the end is a nonbinding political document — and another thing to throw America into default. And so McCarthy has urged them to consider raising the ceiling under certain conditions and thus to view this moment as a golden opportunity to force significant changes from the White House. “We all ran for a reason,” he tells them. “What’s most of concern to you? What is it that we think will change America?”
As a result, the freshmen have begun to move away from a hard “no” on raising the debt ceiling to a “yes, if.” In the conference room, several freshmen have said they’ll vote to raise the ceiling only if the president agrees to repeal his health care legislation. Or if Obama signs into law a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, after all 50 states have ratified it. Or if he’ll agree to mandatory caps on all nondefense spending. Or if he’ll enact the Ryan budget. The whip writes down all their ideas on a notepad.
And Robert Costa at National Review has more reporting:
Rep. Tom Graves (R., Ga.) says he’s “starting to hear” a sentiment from leadership that is more in line with that of the conservative and freshman members of the conference. “It’s something that we have heard here recently, and we’re starting to hear more of it,” he tells NRO. “Out of today’s discussion it’s clear that the conference is unified behind the need for a balanced-budget amendment.” Graves said the House vote on a balance-budget amendment, scheduled for the week of July 25, would send an important signal to the White House.
Still, not every Republican leaving the closed-door confab was pleased. “Only one word comes to mind right now: chaos,” says one leading House conservative. “There is no plan. Cantor’s cuts would never pass the House, Boehner has walked out and Obama is not serious about anything. There’s nothing.” Another conservative member agreed: “It’s going to be a very rocky few weeks,” he says. “We’re holding, but beyond that, I have no idea what is going to happen.”
The predominant conservative view here seems to be that nothing bad would happen if we fail to lift the debt ceiling. Indeed, failing to life the debt ceiling is simply another way of imposing a balanced budget requirement, which would be good! (Even Mitt Romney has endorsed this plan.) Therefore, why should they lift the debt ceiling and allow the un-balancing of the budget, if they don't get a balanced budget requirement in return?
The more we find out about the House Republican caucus, the more obvious it becomes that they're not just trying to maximize their leverage by pretending to be crazy. They're crazy.