Debt Ceiling Stalemate Not About Numbers

by Stuart Rothenberg July 15, 2011 · 11:08 AM EDT

There is an old joke, attributed to both Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw. It goes something like this:

Churchill: Madam, would you sleep with me for 5 million pounds?

Woman: My goodness, Mr. Churchill ... Well, I suppose ... we would have to discuss terms, of course ...

Churchill: Would you sleep with me for 5 pounds?

Woman: Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?!

Churchill: Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price.

Politics is much the same. Each side starts with a number, and the typical compromise usually means splitting the difference, or at least finding the dollar amount that everyone can live with.

That’s what happened in April, for example, when Congress settled on a bill cutting $38 billion from the current year’s budget. Nobody was entirely happy, but a majority found an acceptable figure.

The current debate over another increase in the debt ceiling initially sounds very much like a standard negotiation over money, but it’s much more — and that makes it much more difficult to achieve.

Fundamentally, the two parties are fighting over values, not dollars.

Yes, Republicans ostensibly are seeking to cut the deficit without increasing taxes on anyone, making it appear as if they are motivated by finances. And Democrats, taking a somewhat more balanced approach, are looking for the right percentages of tax cuts and revenue increases to satisfy their own supporters, as well as Republicans.

But in reality, what we are witnessing is nothing less than a fight over the role of government. And it is much harder, if not impossible, to “split the difference” on these kinds of matters of opinion.

Most recently elected House Republicans believe that government can’t and shouldn’t do all it has done. Cutting spending is merely the means to cutting government, as Ronald Reagan understood.

Yes, Republicans complained about the costs associated with the Democrats’ health care bill, with the 2009 economic stimulus and with the Democrats’ cap-and-trade proposal, but that’s not the real reason why they opposed those initiatives.

They don’t believe that government should involve itself in the market that directly, or in picking winners and losers. They regard the health care bill’s individual mandate as excessive government intervention into individual rights. And they don’t trust bureaucrats or government officials to decide what’s good for people.

It’s easier, of course, for Republicans to couch their opposition to more government in dollars-and-cents terms, since even those who might disagree with them philosophically might agree with their opposition to higher taxes or their assessment that a growing debt will threaten the nation’s economic future.

Democrats, on the other hand, went into this debate with the weaker hand, since they’ve been in control until recently and can’t afford to be boxed into a corner as the party that opposes cutting the deficit or the long-term debt.

Because of that, Democratic leaders are willing to accept substantial spending cuts as part of a package deal. In that regard, they seem more reasonable, more willing to split the difference.

But when it comes to cutting what those Democrats regard as core programs — what the government does and should do — they balk loudly. In this regard, they are like House Republicans.

Fundamentally, most Democrats believe that only government can bring fairness and justice to the free market, which tends to be selfish and subject to abuse. They believe government should take care of people who have problems taking care of themselves or for whom the free market simply doesn’t work.

Whether it’s health care or retirement income for seniors, Democrats are committed to protecting entitlements, which they believe the government can deliver more cheaply because it, unlike the private sector, isn’t trying to make a profit.

So when Republicans meet resistance trying to shrink government by rolling back entitlements, they are meeting the same kind of resistance from Democrats that Democrats meet when they advocate higher taxes to prevent cuts in what they see as core government functions.

Of course, President Barack Obama has offered to put entitlements on the table. The question is whether he can speak for Congressional Democrats any more than Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) can speak for House Republicans. In the past, he hasn’t sounded or acted like someone willing to limit the scope of government.

It’s easy to get depressed about all of the posturing and inflexibility that is apparent in the debt ceiling talks. But nobody should be surprised.

It is now two months since my column in this space predicting that the debt ceiling issue definitely would not be resolved until mid-July, at the earliest. Now, it’s finally time to get serious.

The problem is that it’s difficult to see a way out of the impasse.

The proposal by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to give the president authority to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for multiple debt limit votes over the next 18 months seems unlikely to satisfy House conservatives.

Democrats argue that they have offered to put everything on the table — taxes and spending — in an effort to find a compromise that Republicans will accept.

Republicans believe they’ve compromised for eight decades on their fight against bigger government, each and every time going along with more spending and new entitlements (even some proposed by Republicans). Now, they apparently think it’s the Democrats’ turn to compromise on core values.

Fights over values don’t end easily, quickly or entirely satisfactorily.