Skip to main content

3 ways to avert Washington's next disaster

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 10:24 AM EDT, Mon October 21, 2013
Tourists flock to memorials in Washington on Saturday, October 19, the first weekend after the end of the partial government shutdown. The Washington Monument and other landmarks across the country have reopened to the public after the 16-day shutdown. The government impasse ended when President Barack Obama signed a spending and debt ceiling agreement that Congress passed, averting a possible default. Tourists flock to memorials in Washington on Saturday, October 19, the first weekend after the end of the partial government shutdown. The Washington Monument and other landmarks across the country have reopened to the public after the 16-day shutdown. The government impasse ended when President Barack Obama signed a spending and debt ceiling agreement that Congress passed, averting a possible default.
HIDE CAPTION
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Twice Washington has come to the edge of default
  • Extreme politicians in either party could trigger another potential default, he says
  • Reforms could eliminate that possibility, by removing debt ceiling, Frum says
  • Frum: Give party leaders more power to keep their members in line

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- Twice in two years, the United States has teetered on the verge of a catastrophic default: once in summer 2011, again in fall 2013.

In 2011, default was averted when President Obama yielded significant concessions to Republicans in Congress. In 2013, it was the Republicans who yielded. If these confrontations continue, however, someday somebody will miscalculate, and over the edge the whole world will go.

I won't take time here to parse precisely how bad such a catastrophe would be: worse than 1931? or merely another 2008? All agree it would be very, very bad. And it should be a rule of politics that very, very bad ought to be avoided -- all the more so when it can be avoided very, very easily.

David Frum
David Frum

In 2011 and 2013, the people forcing the catastrophe happened to be Republicans confronting a Democratic president. Next time, however, they might well be Democrats seeking leverage against a Republican president.

Over the past dozen years, both parties have become more militant in the way they play politics. If the Republicans look more extreme today, it's also true that they are the party out of power. Wait until it's the Democrats turn to go out, and see how they act.

Yet there are Americans worried by the radicalization of the country's politics. They belong to both parties and to neither. They recognize that something is going seriously wrong -- and that this trend could have serious consequences. Here are some ideas that such Americans might want to consider. I'll start with the easiest first, then work up to the more ambitious:

1) Abolish the debt ceiling.

McCain: Shutdown tactics 'fool's errand'
GOP strategist: This has hurt the brand
Sen. Cruz: GOP failed, 'didn't unite'

The debt ceiling is an artifact of the First World War. In the 19th century, Congress authorized each and every bond issue by the United States. The costs of global war rendered that practice untenable, so instead Congress granted the executive branch a generalized authority to borrow up to a set amount.

It seemed a good idea at the time. In the modern context, however, the debt ceiling creates very negative incentives for Congress. Congress can first vote to create a deficit, then vote to refuse to cover that deficit. Remember, it's Congress that sets the level of tax. It's Congress that sets the level of spending. If Congress is unhappy about the difference between those two levels, Congress has the power to close it. There's no need to threaten to blow up the financial world.

Four things we learned from government shutdown

2) Reform campaign finance to strengthen party leaders.

The Republicans who pushed this latest crisis were challenging their own party leaders fully as much as they were challenging President Obama. Speaker John Boehner has repeatedly made clear his dislike for debt-ceiling extortion. Yet he has lacked the power to stop it.

TV commentators snark at Boehner's weak hold on his caucus. Who else would do better? Boehner lacks sticks and lacks carrots. He doesn't choose committee chairs. He does not dispense pork barrel favors. He can't strip a recalcitrant member of his or her Republican nomination at the next primary. Most crippling of all, and quite unlike the powerful speakers of former times, he does not control access to party funds.

In most democracies, most political money is raised and spent by party leaders. The United States, by contrast, has built a uniquely candidate-centered fundraising system. This system has gradually accreted over the past 70 years, the byproduct of restrictions by reformers and innovation by nonparty groups.

The party-dominated politics of 1830-1970 had a lot of problems, no doubt. But the post-party politics since 1970 has delivered even worse results. One reform would make a big and immediate difference: Lift the cap on the maximum amount parties can give to their candidates: today only $5,000 per House candidate -- unchanged since 1940 -- plus an additional $42,000 of party-coordinated funds.

Right now, a sufficiently obtrusive House member doesn't have much to fear from defying Boehner. (In the last midterm election cycle, Boehner and his leadership PAC together raised less money than GOP outlier Michele Bachmann.) If, however, the speaker could open or close a million-dollar contribution spigot, that member would listen as attentively as the members used to listen to House Speaker Sam Rayburn -- and might turn a deafer ear to Heritage Action when it proposes to blow up the world to score a point.

GOP, Boehner take shutdown hit in new CNN poll

3) Make continuing resolutions automatic.

The United States is not the only country to have budget disputes. Other democracies cope with these inevitable disagreements by the simple rule: If no budget can be agreed, simply carry over the previous year's budget month by month until agreement is ultimately reached. While politicians negotiate, travelers can still renew their passports. Obvious, no? Why not here?

The fact is, most of the time, Americans already do this. Formal budgeting tends to sputter to a halt in periods of divided government. The continuing resolutions that fund the federal government were invented as exactly the kind of work-around that other democracies use. So let's ensure that the continuing resolutions continue when they are needed most, when the differences seem most acute. The whole point of democracy is that there are no disagreements so acute that they are worth overthrowing the government and the state.

And indeed, when disagreements do reach the ultimately dangerous point, somebody will blink (usually the somebody doing worse in the opinion polls). Why let things reach that point in the first place?

The short answer is that there are political factions that value conflict almost as an end in itself. But most people don't -- and the more explicitly the questions are raised, "Should the government function?" and "Should government pay its bills in full and on time?" -- the larger the constituency we can amass for simple reforms to make government work for all who pay for it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:19 PM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
updated 10:52 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
updated 9:01 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
updated 2:32 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
updated 5:03 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
updated 5:25 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT