The entire political world right now is holding its collective breath over whether a deal will be struck between President Obama and the leadership of Congress to raise America's debt ceiling. The more honest observers of this process have noted the "Kabuki theater" nature of the proceedings, as they wisely discount the possibility that the deadline will be reached with no agreement in place. "This is all for show," the jaded pundits assure us, "there will be a deal." But this reasoning can be taken one step further: not only will there be a last-minute deal, but the deal will not happen until that last minute -- and this is by design. While duelling press conferences amuse the public, behind the scenes the name of the game Obama and the Republicans are playing could rightly be called "The Big Stall."
Stalling helps both sides in this fight, in two major ways. The first is purely political, and the second is more practical. With the clock busily ticking away, everyone involved in this struggle is scoring political points with the public (or, at the very least, trying their hardest to do so). When a deal emerges at the last minute, all the politicians in Congress will be able to go to their party's base and state: "We fought as hard as we could, and we got the best deal we possibly could have gotten." The very fact that the negotiations went down to the wire will bolster this assertion -- again, for both sides. Remember, right after this deal is struck, Congress will be going on vacation for a month, and both parties want to be able to face the voters with the claim that they didn't prematurely give in on their core party principles. If a deal is struck too early, then it will appear one side or the other caved too fast. Which means that both parties have a vested interest in pushing things to the very last instant.
Both President Obama and the leaders of Congress also have a more practical vested interest in stalling as long as they think is possible, as well. Because there is a hard and fast deadline (August 2), the longer the leadership stalls the negotiations and makes political hay over how hard they are fighting, the less time Congress is going to have to act at the end of the process.
Imagine if a deal had been agreed to by the Republicans and Obama last week, just for the sake of argument. Actually, that is the most apt phrase to describe this scenario, because argument is what would be happening right now, in a big way -- in both the House and Senate. If both houses of Congress knew that they had a leisurely three weeks or so to act, then they'd spend every minute of that time enjoying their own moment in the media spotlight, making as much political hay as they could possibly manage. Instead of seeing only John Boehner and Mitch McConnell vying with the president for the camera's attention, you would instead have the hundreds of Republicans in Congress all trying to be the loudest voice in the debate. To be fair, the same would be true on the Democratic side as well.
The longer Congress had to publicly posture and pontificate over the deal, the more time they'd have to tinker with the details. This could be a bad thing or a good thing, depending on what got tinkered with (and which perspective you saw it from, of course). But the more tinkering Congress did, the more of a possibility that the whole thing could blow up in their faces as one side or the other pushes things too far to ever actually pass both the House and the Senate. Instead of coming together at the last minute, the whole shebang could fall apart at the last minute, in other words.
Both Obama and the congressional leadership know this. Which is why they're going to continue stalling right up to the very last possible instant, and then present Congress with a "take it or leave it" deal. By leaving only the barest minimum of time for floor debate in both chambers, there will be not much opportunity for tinkering with whatever deal emerges from the negotiations. Everyone in Congress will have the opportunity to rant and rave in a floor speech that they can brag about over the August break, but there won't be time for much more than the usual grandstanding.
Of course, there will be lots of grumbling from both sides about the fact that the rank and file of Congress has been somewhat sidelined in the process, but this can easily be countered with the fact that nothing has stopped them from acting until now. Congress -- both the House and the Senate -- have done precisely nothing so far to solve the debt ceiling problem, so it's a little late for them to be complaining about the current schedule. They've had oodles of time to act on their own, and they have not done so. This won't stop them from complaining, however.
There's a rumor making the rounds that the House Republicans may actually attempt to enter the debate on their own, by bringing a bill to the floor and starting a big debate even as their own leadership is in negotiations with the White House. This could allow them to publicly make their case in detail, while the negotiators are still locked in a closed room hammering things out. The media would certainly go along for the ride, and the dynamic of the negotiations themselves might be changed as a result. But if this rumor is true, they're going to have to act extremely quickly -- and so far, they haven't shown any sign of actually doing so.
Instead, what is much more likely is The Big Stall will continue right up to the point where Congress has enough time to act -- but only enough time to act, and not enough time to tinker. Then the deal will be announced, and Congress will be on the hot seat. At this point, they'll be operating under the threat of Wall Street acting if they don't -- by downgrading the credit rating of the United States of America for the first time in history. Which Wall Street could do at any time (they're likely not going to wait until the absolute last minute to do so). Tea Party rhetoric aside, the deal is likely going to pass both houses (most likely with bipartisan votes), and such catastrophe will be averted at the last minute.
There's an old bumpersticker saying that "if it wasn't for the last minute, nothing would ever get done," which bears repeating right now. But this time around, it will be by design. Neither President Obama nor the congressional leadership is going to allow Congress any more time than the absolute minimum necessary they require to pass a law. Until then, we've got at least one more week (possibly two) to sit back and watch The Big Stall.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant