Have we reached peak bleak in Washington? It feels like it when just about the only thing you hear is Republicans and Democrats making bigger claims about how they won't blink. But let's engage for a moment in some tiny bit of optimism. What if we close our eyes and listen to that thin slice of the reporting that points a way out of this mess?
We know what a bad debt limit negotiation looks like between these two sides--that was the 2011 mess. But there's actually a closer example of what a more pleasant debt limit negotiation looks like--that's the debt limit increase that passed in January 2013.
In that deal, House Republicans voted to increase the debt limit with a side agreement that bound the Senate to passing a budget or lose their paychecks. Because everything these days must have a hashtag, GOP leaders appeared before a large sign reading #nobudgetnopay.
The deal met the president's requirement that the debt limit be increased without conditions. It also allowed House Republicans to get what they wanted--something they could point to that showed their constituents that they had held the line and made the Senate get tough on government spending. House Speaker John Boehner only lost 33 of his House Republicans in that debt limit vote. It passed with the help of Democrats but also a majority of the Republican conference.
In retrospect, this deal shows a quaint faith in the budget process that has since gone kaput and landed us in this current fix. The Senate came up with a budget, but Republicans did not want to name conferees to hash out the differences. (They said doing so would be pointless because both sides were too far apart.)The Senate did not consider any appropriations bills on the floor and the House only some of them.
The failure of #nobudgetnopay to do much of anything to improve the underlying budget process is just one of the hurdles to duplicating that deal now. But we're trying to be optimistic, so keep your eyes closed and let's continue our story.
Building on the January 2013 deal, the solution to the current impasse would be a supercharged #nobudgetnopay. The House would pass a "clean" debt limit increase and clean continuing resolution to keep government funded, which is what the president wants. Then there would be a side agreement cooked up by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Boehner that would include something that Republicans want. That agreement would name budget conferees to debate the big issues of spending, taxes, entitlements, and economic growth, and it would include some guarantee--probably in the form of a stick--to make sure the conferees did their work.
The pain would have to be more than just holding members' paychecks because the stakes are higher now. Such pain mechanisms used to be considered a joke, but the no budget/no pay gimmick worked--the Senate did pass a budget after all. Sen. Rob Portman has a bill intended to end dysfunction in the budget process by steadily decreasing funding if there is no budget--a version of that scheme might be adapted to help members focus or face cuts to popular programs. Perhaps a version of that could be bolted on to this side agreement. Or, the debt limit increase could be of short duration to help focus the discussions.