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A Short-Term Debt Limit Increase Would Be a Disaster

President Obama shouldn't want it. Neither should John Boehner.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Let’s stipulate that yesterday’s acknowledgement that the White House is open to a short-term debt-limit increase didn’t deserve half the breathless coverage it received. No, White House economic adviser Gene Sperling’s statement was not a “crack” in the Democratic Party line, as Politico put it. Nor was it, as the initial Washington Post account (no longer online) suggested, an indication that the White House was open to budget negotiations tied to the debt limit, reversing a longstanding position. As my colleague Jonathan Cohn subsequently reported, the president’s position remains where it has been for months: Congress must raise the debt ceiling with no strings attached. Sperling was simply making the uncontroversial point that the size of the debt ceiling increase is ultimately up to Congress.

Having said this, it’s worth pointing out that a short-term debt limit increase is a horrible idea, and the White House shouldn’t be remotely agnostic over it. The reason the White House has been so firm in its no-debt-limit negotiation position is that it understands what’s at stake. If Republicans believe they can extract concessions from the president by threatening a debt default (the consequence of not raising the limit), then there’s no end to what they will be able to demand. Elections and the legislative process will become utterly meaningless. A minority party will be able to enact an agenda for which it lacks popular support and sufficient votes in Congress. The only way to prevent this is to make crystal clear that there will be no concessions period, rendering the whole extortion exercise utterly pointless.

The problem with a short-term debt limit increase is it muddies everything you’re trying to make clear. Suppose Congress reopened the government for six weeks under a temporary funding bill known as a continuing resolution (CR) while at the same time raising the debt limit for six weeks. Obama has said he’s happy to negotiate a fiscal deal once the government is reopened, even as he refuses to negotiate the debt limit. Under this scenario, how would he differentiate between the two? Even if the White House were absolutely scrupulous about not trading anything for the debt limit increase (that is, not making more concessions for a budget deal that includes a debt-ceiling increase than they’d make for a budget deal without one), Boehner could always turn around and tell his rank-and-file that some of the concessions came in return for the debt-ceiling measure. It wouldn’t matter if he were right or wrong. The mere belief among Republicans that they’d extracted concessions for raising the debt limit would encourage them to try again.

But the problem is even worse than this, given the context. As things stands, the White House is saying it won’t negotiate to raise the debt ceiling, while Republicans are expressing sublime confidence that the White House ultimately will deal, as it has in the past. From my own conversations with administration officials, and from all the reporting and public statements I’ve seen to this effect, I’m fairly certain the White House isn’t going to retreat. But the fact is that there’s some ambiguity out there in light of the recent history. Unfortunately, a short-term debt-limit increase would only exacerbate this ambiguity. Given that a short-term increase would make it harder to preserve the no-negotiation posture (as explained in the previous paragraph), it would be plausible to interpret the short-term increase as an indication that Democrats do in fact want to negotiate. That’s completely at odds with what Democrats want John Boehner to believe, and (as I say) with what I think the reality is. But it’s the message Republicans will take away. If there’s a short-term increase, Boehner’s going to hold out longer into the process than if there isn’t one.

Some have suggested that there’s at least one benefit to a short-term increase: It gives Boehner more time to sober up and get his head around the consequences of default (presumably with a lot of help from Wall Street and the broader business community), and more time to persuade his members why they can’t do the unthinkable. That sounds plausible in principle. But it completely misunderstands how the House GOP actually works. The reality is that Boehner understands perfectly well that a default would be catastrophic. But because of enormous pressure from his Tea Party wing, Boehner always has to appear to be completely unrelenting up until the very last minute, at which point he relents. If the Treasury Secretary says we will default on October 17, then Boehner has to sound positively Churchillian right up until the evening of October 16, at which point he will finally break it to his troops that they have exhausted all their options.

In fact, because part of Boehner’s m.o. is to ratchet up his rhetoric as time goes by in order to sooth his looniest lunatics—he is fond, for example, of introducing various “rules” that make it logically impossible to achieve the outcome he knows he must achieve (like raising the debt limit)—extending the amount of time in which this drama plays out makes a catastrophic ending far more likely. So far, Boehner has tended to simply break his own rules when the moment of truth arrives. But it’s not hard to imagine one of these nonsensical rules tripping him up at some point. (Suppose the Tea Partiers actually, you know, hold him to his word for a change...) Bottom line: The sooner we have the final debt ceiling showdown, the fewer opportunities Boehner has to back himself further into a corner from which he may never emerge.

All of which is to say, a short-term debt limit increase will at best simply defer our current drama for another six weeks. More likely, it will substantially increase the odds of disaster. That doesn’t sound like a very good deal to me.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber