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You don’t negotiate with hostage-takers.

In all the happiness of our having narrowly averted a government shutdown, with all its serious consequences, let's not forget the price we paid by violating that rule.

If you let the other side win by their use of hostage-taking, of course they’re going to do it again and again, probably in escalating fashion, with demands ever more outrageous.

This rationale explains why the “no negotiations” rule doesn’t apply categorically to every bank robbery gone bad where the criminals take hostages to hold off the police who have them surrounded. The robbers are not an ongoing threat. You’re not going to encourage them to rob more banks in the future by letting them negotiate the terms of their surrender, because when it’s all over, they’ll be in jail.

But the Rs are an ongoing threat. At the end of the day, they will not be carted off to jail. We will have to deal with them long into the indefinite future. So in dealing with them, the rule applies—iron-clad, categorical, no exceptions.

The public explanation for no negotiations surrounding the annual budget reconciliation process is simple, because the situation is quite simple. The only legitimate, Constitutional, way to create or remove a govt obligation to spend money, is to pass or repeal the law that creates the obligation, period. It’s not legitimate to try to end-run the Constitution by exploiting a feature of this rather obscure, inside baseball, budget reconciliation process, to hold the whole govt and the economy hostage. The Rs need both chambers plus the WH to write or repeal laws. They didn’t get that in the last elections, they only got the House. What they’re trying to do in taking the budget reconciliation process hostage is simply and unequivocally cheating, trying to get what only the trifecta would get them legitimately, the ability to make or unmake laws.

The mistake was even talking to them about the budget in the setting of their threat to use this budget reconciliation process to take the country hostage. The size and make-up of the national budget is obviously open to negotiation in a democracy. The size and make-up of the national budget are obviously important (though not the crisis concern the Rs paint it as), necessary parts of the public conversation of governance in a republic. But our form of govt is a democratic republic, not a dictatorship of the House. We need to have the budget conversation over the passage of laws in the way our Constitution requires, not in the context of a House putsch.  Let them put up bills to repeal laws that obligate the govt to spend money that they feel is not justified.  Then we'll have the conversation over whether or not we can afford the spending they think we can't.

The next time they use hostage-taking to get more than their due, and they will do this again because we let it work for them this time, it won't be so simple to explain why hostage-taking is illegitimate, and why we won't negotiate.  We just made it easier for them, and harder for us the next time.

Yes, we were clever enough to get, as part of the deal, the final resolution of last year's reconciliation package.  "Next time" is not going to be next week.  But there will be a next time, over the exact same reconciliation process, at the end of this fiscal year, less than six months from now.  And then there will be another next time just before the 2012 elections.  But that's just the next times for budget reconciliation.  

We also have raises in the debt ceiling that provide an opportunity for hostage-taking.  But, wait, you say, the consequences of denying a raise in the debt-ceiling, national default, are so horrendous that, surely, they wouldn't dare hold default hostage?  Well, except that we just conceded the point that the consequences would be equally the fault of both sides if the hostage takers aren't negotiated with, if their demands are not at least partially met, if they are not compromised with.  If our side was unwilling to let a shutdown happen, because the consequences would be worse than the budget concessions demanded by the hostage-takers, what sort of much more extreme concessions will we be willing to make to avoid default, which has consequences so much worse than a mere shutdown?

By negotiating with hostage-takers, we just gave up our best line of defense in our ongoing struggle with the teahadists.  The thinking that allowed that to happen seems to be based on week-to-week management of poll numbers.  We weren't willing to risk a possible short-term drop in our numbers, but the way we chose to avoid that outcome involved creating a much more intractable problem months and years down the road.  Well, the poll numbers only count months and years down the road, so which side has the better grasp on the importance of poll numbers?  The next time any poll will count is in 11/12, and we just made that poll much harder to win so that we could avoid losing the week, this week in 4/11.

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