The Boehner/Obama Fiscal Brawl

Listening to Barack Obama and John Boehner over the past few days put me in mind of two testosterone-addled 22-year olds preparing for a bar fight, rather than the President of the United States and the Speaker of the House discussing fiscal policy.

First, Boehner kicked off this high-level “whose your mama” conversation by demanding that Democrats agree to massive spending cuts as the price for allowing the U.S. to continue to borrow from the bond markets. No tax increases allowed.

At one point in his May 15 speech to a room full of budget wonks, Boehner began a sentence with the phrase, “Yes, allowing America to default would be irresponsible…”

The very fact that the Speaker of the House would follow that phrase with a… but… was itself remarkable. And sad.

But Boehner is absolutely right. Cutting off access to the bond markets (we wouldn’t really default, but that’s another story) would be irresponsible. Yet Boehner sounds like he can’t wait to replay the fiscal slugfest of last summer. “We shouldn’t dread the debt limit,” he said, “We should welcome it.”

Obama responded by inviting the congressional leadership to a White House lunch, where he unhelpfully warned that a rerun of last year’s fiscal debacle is “unacceptable.”

The context for all of this, of course, is the coming fiscal train wreck. Sometime in late 2012 or early 2013, the U.S. will reach its legal borrowing limit, just as the 2001/2003/2010 tax cuts will all expire, and deep automatic cuts will be made to some government programs, including defense.

Almost nobody in Washington wants all three of these things to happen.  But as long as both parties continue to treat this as a partisan brawl, they could.

Boehner knows full well that a lame-duck Senate will never pass anything that resembles the House GOP’s spending cuts-only budget. In fact, a day after his speech, the Senate voted on that budget. It got 41 votes. Then, it voted on another version offered by Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA). That one got 42 votes. Then, it voted on a budget that would cut the size of government in half over 25 years. That got 17 votes.

For his part, Obama understands that declaring that hostage-taking is not acceptable is equally meaningless. It wasn’t acceptable last summer either, yet it happened.     

So what is it that Boehner and Obama are really saying?

An optimist, which I am not, might think this is exactly the sort of macho posturing two 22-year olds do to avoid a fight. They splash their drinks and pound the bar. They wave fingers in one another’s faces and yell a lot, but they are really looking for a face-saving way to avoid a busted nose.

A pessimist would say that both men, but especially Boehner, are captive of political forces beyond their control. The speaker is again being goaded into this brawl by a group of GOP lawmakers who can think of nothing more productive than busting up the bar.

Then, of course, there is presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney, whose view of all of this is…well, we don’t actually have any idea what he thinks about a repeat fiscal showdown.

And Obama, who needs an enthusiastic base to win re-election, is hardly in a position to appear willing to deal with the GOP on, for instance, big changes in Medicare and Social Security.

Thus, we all prepare for a slugfest. And make sure we know the fastest route to the door when the chairs start flying.