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Why is there brinkmanship over the debt ceiling despite voters’ desire for compromise in Congress?


There is progress on the debt limit. There is no progress. Conservatives have revolted. The Liberal Democrats are angry. Negotiators actually eaten together. That is a good sign. No, that’s not it. Who is there? Who’s Down?

Much of the breathless coverage of the debt crisis is based on leaks, speculation, wishful thinking, and maybe even reading tea leaves. The Conversation decided to turn to an expert on congressional behavior, a political scientist from Northwestern University Laurel Harbridge-Yong, and ask her what she sees when she looks at the negotiations. Harbridge-Yong is a specialist in partisan conflict and the lack of bipartisan consensus in American politics, so her expertise is tailor-made at this point.

What do debt limit negotiations look like for you?

The difficulty that Congress and the White House have in compromising highlights two aspects of contemporary politics. The first: since the 1970s, both the House and Senate become much more polarized. Members of the two parties are internally more united and further removed from the opposing party. You no longer have the overlap between parties that existed 50 years ago.

Even as we’ve had increasing polarization, we still have it significant differences within the parties. Not every Democrat is the same as another and not every Republican is the same.

This relates to a second point: the individual and collective interests of members determine their behavior. For Republicans in more competitive districts, their own individual electoral interests are probably saying, ‘Let’s make a deal. Let’s not risk bankruptcy that will be blamed on the Republicans, which is going to go very badly in my district.”

On the other hand, House Freedom Caucus Republicans come from really safe districts, and they care more about their primaries than their general elections. So their own electoral interests say, “Stand your ground, fight to the bitter end, try to force the hand of the president.”

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., center, said on May 25, 2023, that he is optimistic that White House and GOP negotiators can reach a deal.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

These kinds of electoral interests arise on an individual and collective level for members of a party. It’s been happening since the 1980s, and accelerating into the 1990s much more competition for majority control, and as a result, the two sides don’t want to do things that make the other side look good. They don’t want to give the other party victory in the eyes of the voter.

So you now have a lot of Republicans who are more willing to fight the Democrats pretty hard because they don’t want to give Biden a win.

Democrats are also resistant to compromise, both because they does not want to undermine programs that they put in place and also because they don’t want this to look like a victory for the Republicans, who could play chicken and get what they wanted.

These dynamics, layered on top of policy interests, all add to the problems we see now.

When I think of brinkmanship, I think of negotiation tactics that push things to the very last minute to try and secure the most concessions for your side. At the moment that means come to the brink of possible default on the debt.

Does brinkmanship work?

I looked back at some of the previous government shutdowns and the debt ceiling negotiations. Concessions were granted in some cases, so brinkmanship paid off. In other cases it was less clear that there was a victory, and in some cases there might have been a fine, when the parties could not agree and there was a government shutdown.

One party may count on the other party to be blamed by the public, while their own party reputation is not damaged. In the 1990s, it seemed like the Republicans who had a hard time of the blame for a government shutdown.

There have been instances where parties get something out of brinkmanship, such as with the government shutdown at the start of the Trump administration in money for the border wall. The Democrats eventually gave some money for the border wall. It wasn’t all Trump wanted, but it was part of what Trump and the Republicans wanted.

Brinkmanship and stalemate are disproportionately hard on Democrats, who generally are expand government programsversus for Republicans, who tend to want that restrict government programs. So stalemate or enforced budget cuts are easier for Republicans to digest than Democrats. It may be part of why we’re seeing Republicans toughen up on these kinds of preconditions.

How does the public view brinkmanship?

In general, I think the audience doesn’t like it.

My own work has shown that the public does not like stalemate about things in which people agree on the end goal. In fact, the public, on average, prefers a victory for the other party to a policy stalemate.

A victory for their own party is the best result, a compromise is the second best, a victory for the other party is the second best. Gridlock is the worst result.

The place where it gets a little more challenging is the way people understand and interpret politics is tough shaped by how politics is framed for them.

Conservative politicians and media are very much about the debt ceiling fiscal responsibilitysaying that this is like a family’s personal budget at home or that it is really important not to just raise the debt limit without issue concessions.

Those on the Democratic side hear that the Republicans are hold the country hostagewe can’t give in to them, this will exhaust really important programsand so on.

So on the one hand, the public doesn’t like stalemate – especially stalemate when the consequences are as bad as would be standard. On the other hand, voters in the grassroots of each party hear the story in very different ways. Both sides are allowed ultimately blaming the other side. They won’t necessarily call their legislators and ask them to compromise.

Many people in business attire on a stage with signs saying 'MAGA Republicans' BAD DEAL'.
Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., Speaks About The Debt Limit And Negotiations To Reach A Deal On May 24, 2023 In Washington, D.C.
Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Democracy is about representation. Do the legislators see themselves as representatives of the voters during these negotiations?

Many conservative Republicans who stand their ground may believe they are good representatives of what the grassroots wants. They represent very strongly partisan districts who might agree with them that they should fight for concessions.

In the recent book which I wrote with Sarah Anderson and Daniel Butler, we found that legislators believe their primary voters want them to reject compromise.

But in the current crisis, those voters may not really understand the consequences of default. Sometimes good representation doesn’t just mean doing what the public wants — legislators have better information or understanding of how things work and need to do what’s in the best interest of their constituents.

But even when individual members try to represent their districts or their states, if we think about this on a more aggregate or collective level, we don’t see great representation. Individual legislators may think they represent voters, but that leads to a total that is not representative of the country as a whole.

What the public as a whole – which tends to be more moderate – wants is a compromise and a solution to this issue.

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