Lessons From the Debt Ceiling Crisis: Bipartisanship in the Tea Party Era

On the day that the debt ceiling deal was announced, the flurry of comments from lawmakers included two that stood out, both for their candid assessments of the agreement, and for the stark contrast between them. While Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) declared that, "I got 98% of what I wanted; I'm pretty happy," Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) lamented that the deal amounted to a "sugar-coated Satan sandwich". The two views could not be more diametrically opposed.

They illuminate the disequilibrium within the final deal, despite President Obama's determined efforts to craft a balanced solution. They show the absence of bipartisanship in the content of the deal, even though the looming consequences compelled bipartisan votes for final passage.

This outcome was principally due to the obstinate position of the Tea Party faction in the House (rather than Republicans in general). Their actions also troubled many Republicans who were concerned about the consequences of inaction. The Tea Party's role displays the power of a sizable extremist faction to reject bipartisanship and impose its demands at any cost, in this case jeopardizing the nation's credit rating and overall economy, with ominous future implications.

How could such an outcome have occurred in the era of President Obama's tenacious emphasis on bipartisanship and post-partisanship as cornerstones of his Administration and its policies? Does this mean that bipartisanship and post-partisanship are antiquated concepts? What does this portend for the prospects of bipartisanship in the future, starting with the "super committee"?

Factionalism Surpassed Partisanship in the Evolution Toward a Deal

Among the many twists and turns leading up to the resolution of the crisis, a few dynamics which curtailed bipartisan efforts were paramount in the evolution of the final deal:

• The Tea Party faction in the House Republican Caucus took an extreme position, maintained uncompromising allegiance to that position, used their leverage as a voting bloc, and refused to negotiate on anything that wasn't in their wish list, even refusing to consider compromises proposed by Senate Minority Leader McConnell, the Simpson-Bowles Commission, and the conservative Republican Senators in the "gang of six".

• In contrast with battles between opposing policies (which lead to compromises among policy options), the Tea Party faction shifted the terms of debate to a battle between Democratic policy and the Tea Party's unwillingness to negotiate at all. Their notion of compromise was to require total capitulation by the Democrats on the substance of the bill in exchange for the procedural concession of allowing a bill to proceed. They simply did not care if there was no action on the debt ceiling, and, regrettably, those who don't care have a tactical advantage.

• The Tea Party House members co-opted the agenda of grass roots Tea Party activists to advance a different agenda. Whereas the objective of the grass roots movement is to get the government's fiscal house in order by reducing the debt and eliminating borrowing for deficit spending, the objective of many in the House faction is to minimize -- some would say deconstruct -- the federal government. Rep. Cantor's call for FEMA disaster aid to be offset by cuts in other programs exemplifies this. The objective of the grass roots activists can be achieved through balanced solutions (combining spending reductions and revenue enhancements), while the House faction's objectives are thwarted by this approach.

• Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader McConnell understood the importance of raising the debt ceiling, and the dire consequences for the country and the economy if it were not raised. Although McConnell's workable solution and Boehner's negotiations with the President did not come to fruition, their influence was vital in reaching the eventual agreement. Yet, in the months leading up to the August 2nd brink of disaster, they utilized the Tea Party members' intransigence to strengthen their own bargaining leverage, which intensified the impasse.

• Once it was clear that Tea Party faction was not willing to negotiate or compromise on any elements that were critical to a balanced solution, Speaker Boehner faced a choice between advancing legislation that could be supported by a coalition of (a) the Tea Party members and the rest of the House Republican Caucus (many of whom recognized the perils of an extended crisis), or (b) the majority of House Republicans and the House Democratic Caucus (as well as the Senate Republicans and Democrats).

• Speaker Boehner chose to advance legislation with a coalition of Tea Party members and the other House Republicans, even though he knew it wouldn't pass the Senate. His bill (prior to the final deal) met all of the Tea Party members' escalating demands, from the inclusion of a balanced-budget amendment to the exclusion of any revenue increases, without any compromises. Yet, in the Tea Party's eyes, it was a compromise, simply because it included a rise in the debt ceiling, which is normally non-controversial.

• The net result is that the Tea Party members first caused the problem and then castigated President Obama for presiding over a problem. The Tea Party faction entered an arena that was always governed by certainty, injected uncertainty into the process, and then wailed about businesses facing uncertainty. Their rebukes are disingenuous at best, since the Tea Party faction created the problems which it claims to abhor.

Lessons Learned for Future Bipartisanship

Some suggest that the prospect for future bipartisan / post-partisan efforts (both procedurally and substantively) has been debilitated, since the politicization of the debt ceiling sacrificed problem-solving in favor of ideology. But that view disregards the evolving nature of bipartisanship, the lessons learned, and the opportunity for progress. Bipartisanship remains possible, following adjustments that have been necessitated by the Tea Party faction's tactics.

Bipartisanship based on rational policy, pragmatic problem-solving, and a spirit of goodwill should give way to a revised practice of bipartisanship based on the exertion of strength and strategic leverage. In the new incarnation, the fundamental tenet of collaboration -- that all parties will be sensibly motivated by mutual benefit to negotiate toward pragmatic results for some of their desired outcomes -- should be replaced by a real politik principle -- that political power must be used to pressure parties to negotiate in good faith. At that point, benevolent negotiations can ensue in which parties relinquish some ground to achieve bipartisan prioritized objectives.

The lessons learned from the debt ceiling debacle include the revised approach to bipartisanship and a number of mechanisms that could enhance bipartisan outcomes, even when legislative efforts are obstructed by the intransigence of the Tea Party or other factions:

1. When the Tea Party politicizes or intensifies an issue, the President could develop and publicize a purist solution of his own that could be implemented by Executive Order, which he keeps in his back pocket in deference to bipartisan solutions. Doing so will show the Tea Party what could happen if they do not join bipartisan negotiations in good faith. It will motivate their participation and minimize their intransigence. Since those who do not care about inaction have a tactical advantage, this approach will give the Tea Party faction an incentive to care and negotiate meaningfully.

2. When the Tea Party faction makes an issue contentious, others should link the issue's underlying policy and values with the grass roots Tea Party activists' principles. By linking the two, the Tea Party House-faction's obstruction of progress on the issue would make them vulnerable to criticism from Tea Party activists that they are violating their own principles. The inherent inconsistency would also illuminate ulterior motives.

3. When Tea Party members are intransigent, Democrats should welcome other Republicans, whose goals or values are obstructed by Tea Party positions, as negotiating partners. Focus should be on areas of potential common ground, where a failure to act would pose tangible risks). This could isolate Tea Party members, transcend their opposition, encourage them to come to the negotiating table, and achieve substantive results where consensus is possible.

4. Speaker Boehner has relented to the Tea Party faction to hold his caucus together, both for party unity and to solidify his position at the helm. Yet, he also has an interest in Republicans not being seen as extremist, retrogressive, and dogmatic, which could alienate Independents and swing voters. When facing Tea Party extremism and intransigence on major issues, he should craft bipartisan coalitions rather than allow the Tea Party faction to drag other Republicans into precarious positions. By reaching across the aisle instead of succumbing to Tea Party demands, he can advance solutions and sound policy with broader benefits.

5. In addition to a legislative or "inside" strategy, a public opinion or "outside" strategy can focus public attention on the risks to individuals, families, and businesses of relenting to Tea Party recalcitrance. Outside-strategies could target the districts/states of key legislators and clearly communicate the benefits of stymied legislation, especially when bipartisan values are at stake. Public support can urge Republicans to repel policy and political risks of inaction and obsequiousness to Tea Party agendas. Democrats and Republicans can even collaborate when Tea Party members threaten basic principles or vital programs. Tea Party members may not need the support of independents and swing voters, but many other Republicans do.

6. The outside-strategy can also expose the motives, extreme positions, and intransigence of the Tea Party faction by drilling down to granular explanations of their underlying goals, and the short- and long-term consequences that their policies would cause. Critiques should impose transparency and accountability on the Tea Party faction, enhance scrutiny of its judgment, and increase pressure on others for bipartisan, balanced solutions.

7. The Senate leadership sometimes forgoes floor votes due to the likelihood of Tea Party-led filibusters (and insufficient votes for cloture). Yet, deferring floor votes sends the wrong message. Senate leaders should bring legislation -- especially when crafted with bipartisan input -- to a vote, even if there will not be enough votes to proceed. In the debt ceiling crisis, doing so would have shown: (a) the efforts being made to find bipartisan common ground, (b) the policy solutions that could be adopted if intransigence were overcome, (c) which Senators are willing to take action, and (d) the Tea Party's hold on Republicans, forcing them into obstructionist roles as "the Party of No". The McConnell-Reid and Gang Of Six proposals could have been advanced in this way, intensifying pressure for a bipartisan solution.

8. Once the Senate brings up legislation, if it is halted by a filibuster, then its opponents will be identified and their motives will be on full display, facilitating an outside-strategy to mobilize public support. A filibuster is not a failure, but rather a speed-bump en route to the next stage of the process. If legislation reaches a vote and passes in the Senate but the House refuses to pass a bill that can send the legislation to a conference committee, then the Senate's passage of its preferred policies still strengthens the President's position, enabling him to convene a bipartisan group of Senate and House leaders to negotiate a solution.

The "Super Committee" for Debt Reduction

The "super committee" for debt reduction is an unusual construct with unique rules and incentives for action. The trigger will be a "sword of Damocles" that encourages its twelve members to find common ground for bipartisan solutions. Numbers 2 through 6, above, could play an important role and foster mutual respect. An outside-strategy, by which public support urges balanced bipartisan policy choices and illuminates the Tea Party's objectives, can reinforce the need to choose options that distribute the fiscal pain of debt reduction fairly. As the "super committee's" work product will affect every American, it is essential for their work to reflect the public's sensibilities for fairness and not impair those who are lower on the socioeconomic ladder.

The Challenge of Bipartisanship Going Forward

The debt ceiling crisis exemplified the challenges faced by those who seek to instill a bipartisan or post-partisan ethic of cooperation. Despite the set-back, prospects for bipartisanship remain, and may be more necessary now than ever before. It should, however, be viewed through a different lens. In contrast with bipartisanship motivated by Republicans' and Democrats' good faith cooperation to advance shared values for the common good, the Tea Party's tactics necessitate the use of power politics to soften recalcitrance, compel bipartisan negotiation, and, at that point, collaborate to advance vital mutually-held objectives.

In essence, instead of starting off on a bipartisan path based on mutual respect and trust, given the current political climate, it seems necessary to work up to it.