In 2011, the new House Republican majority, egged on by Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy and led by radical Tea Party rightists such as Jason Chaffetz, brought the U.S. to the brink of a default. The disaster was headed off by a last-minute compromise between Speaker John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and President Barack Obama. A breach of the debt ceiling, meaning the loss of the full faith and credit of the United States, would have been catastrophic. But Chaffetz and many of his colleagues were more than willing to make that happen. In the aftermath, Chaffetz said, “We weren’t kidding around. We would have taken it down.”
As it was, the brinkmanship and delays had severe effects. The Dow fell 2,000 points in the months that followed, and borrowing costs for the federal government increased by an estimated $18.9 billion over 10 years, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Chaffetz is now long gone from the House, but the Tea Party radicals—who a few years later formed the Freedom Caucus because the existing right-wing caucus, the Republican Study Committee, was not right-wing enough—have moved from the fringe to the center among House Republicans. And if Republicans capture a majority in next month’s midterm election, they will make the Tea Party group look like milquetoast moderates. The prospect of default, along with extended government shutdowns and disruptions and a hamstrung administration, will loom large.
If there is one timeworn cliché about elections, it is that the next one is the most significant in our lifetime. There is reason to believe it is true this time. Although the outcomes remain uncertain, one thing is clear: If Republicans win control of the House of Representatives, the country will face a series of fundamental challenges much greater than we have had in any modern period of divided government, including a direct and palpable threat of default and government shutdown. The Republican majority will be more radical, reckless, and willing to employ nuclear options to achieve its goals than any of its predecessors have been, and its leadership, starting with McCarthy, will be either compliant or too weak to head off catastrophe. [Continue reading…]