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The fear of 'precedent'

For President Obama and his White House team, negotiations over the 2011 debt-ceiling increase are an area of major regret. At the time, the president looked at this as a straightforward opportunity -- he and Republican leaders were both interested in a long-term debt-reduction deal, so this seemed like a suitable time to work on one. GOP officials, meanwhile, saw it slightly differently -- the White House was expected to meet Republican demands or they would create a deliberate economic catastrophe.

Obama and his aides learned from the experience and came to a clear conclusion: no more negotiating over the debt ceiling. Indeed, the president has been candid on this point throughout 2013: he'll negotiate on just about anything, but not if Republicans hold the full faith and credit of the United States hostage. For Obama, it's simply too dangerous to set a precedent in which Congress threatens the nation's well-being every time the debt-ceiling needs to be raised.

Oddly enough, congressional Republicans are thinking along identical lines, just from the opposite perspective.

National Journalreported yesterday, "Many House Republicans have sworn never to support a clean debt-ceiling extension, no matter the length, because of the precedent it would set." David Drucker added this morning:

For House Republicans, the fight over the debt ceiling isn't just about fiscal reform. The battle that spawned a government shutdown is also very much about preserving the GOP majority's relevance in future policy debates. [...]

Republicans are concerned that the refusal of President Obama and Senate Democrats to negotiate those issues with Republicans would establish a precedent making it impossible to haggle over future debt limit increases or to use them as leverage in other policy negotiations. [...]

Surrounded by a hostile White House and Senate, and with few legislative avenues beyond borrowing and spending bills to impose their agenda, Republicans said capitulating to Obama would cede to Democrats the only institutional authority Republicans possess.

We'll know soon enough how (or whether) the debt-ceiling crisis will be resolved, but this is an important perspective about the nature of Republican politics in 2013.

These House Republican lawmakers are saying they want to make catastrophic threats a normal part of contemporary politics, and justify this extremism by saying voters haven't left them any choice.

Let's break this down into two related angles. First, Republicans worried about a clean debt-ceiling increase setting a "precedent" are too late -- the precedent has already been set. GOP leaders themselves have voted for clean debt-ceiling increases many, many times. Looking back at the history (pdf) of this dangerous law, clean increases are the norm.

If Republicans are committed to preventing a precedent from being set, they're going to need a time machine.

Second, let's not brush past the underlying GOP fear: Republicans want things from their policy wish list, and believe threatening to hurt Americans on purpose is the only realistic way to achieve their goals. It's why they're suddenly terrified of a clean debt-ceiling increase. "Hold on a sec," they're saying. "If we simply do our jobs the way we're supposed to, we can't force Obama to give us stuff."

And I suppose that's true. If the traditional norms of the American system of government are left intact, the House really won't be able to force the Senate and White House to accept policies they oppose under the threat of political violence.

But -- and I'm just spitballing here -- Republicans could try something truly radical. They could try working on a policy agenda and then reaching out to Democrats in the hopes of reaching compromises. This would, I'm afraid, require both sides to make concessions, which the right isn't comfortable with, but if GOP lawmakers were willing to try this, I have some good news for them:

There's plenty of precedent for this approach working quite well.