Like the atomic bomb in a James Bond movie, the debt ceiling crisis seems to have been averted with only minutes remaining on the countdown clock. A lot could still go wrong. But sighs of relief are being heard from Congress and from Wall Street. The S&P 500 has gained more than 2 percent over the past week.
We can all welcome the last-minute decision by Republicans in Congress to halt a confrontation that threatened to blow up the world financial system. It’s important to understand, however, that even if all goes as agreed—even if the debt ceiling is raised and the government shutdown ended—this crisis has nowhere near ended.
The crisis will be a long time ending because it was a long time starting. The crisis did not start 15 days ago. It did not start with Sen. Ted Cruz. And it won’t be ended by a back-room deal.
Before the shutdown was the sequester. Before that was the fiscal cliff. Before that was the near default of 2011. Before that was the battle over food stamps and extended unemployment insurance. Before that, the drama of Obamacare and the summer of the town halls. And before that, of course, were the conflicts of the Bush years, which seemed unprecedented enough at the time.
The American system has historically been governed by unwritten norms every bit as important as the formal rules of the House and Senate. Over the past generation—and especially since 2009—those norms have faded away, replaced by a new and more ruthless style of politics.
The political scientists Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann draw attention to one indicator of the new ruthlessness in their important book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. The minority party in the Senate has the power to delay approval of a president’s appointees. Historically, minority parties have hesitated to use that power. Sixteen months into the George W. Bush administration, for example, on Memorial Day 2002, only 13 executive-branch nominations awaited confirmation by the Senate. At the corresponding moment in the Obama administration, Memorial Day 2010, 108 nominees awaited action by the Senate.
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