We've heard it over and over in the debate about the partial government shutdown and the oncoming issue of raising the debt ceiling: Republicans are taking hostages, putting a gun to our heads, and threatening us with harm unless they get their way. By raising the possibility that we won't pay our debts, they're violating democracy and engaging in blackmail, or so we're told.
It's common for politicians to accuse one another of "taking hostages," but is there anything to it?
The argument is that Republicans are hostage-taking because they're not funding the government (and may not raise the debt ceiling) — which could cause serious harm to the U.S. economy — unless they get certain concessions, such as delaying the Affordable Care Act.
But Democrats have refused to pass a budget piecemeal, a process which would involve a clean, straight, up-or-down vote on each budget item, uncluttered by unrelated items. This would allow for the funding of things like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which both sides agree shouldn't be shut down. Does that mean Democrats are holding the NIH hostage?
And Democrats have refused to pass the Full Faith and Credit Act, which would require the federal government to pay its debt obligations first if it doesn't have enough money to pay all its bills. (Even if we hit the debt ceiling, we'll still have enough money to pay interest on our debt.) And President Barack Obama has refused to promise to do this on his own initiative. Does that mean Obama and Democrats are holding our good financial standing hostage?
Likewise, Obama and Democrats have refused to go along with Republican proposals to fix our long-term fiscal problems (which are significantly caused by Social Security and Medicare). Does that mean Obama and the Democrats are willing to drive our finances into a ditch unless the fix is done "their" way according to their "ideology"? Or that they're taking our future financial solvency "hostage" by not signing onto a plan to fix our future deficits?
No, they're not, and neither are Republicans. Both parties have certain goals they want to achieve, and they're both willing to risk certain things — a government shutdown, a debt default, or another "kicking the can down the road" on our fiscal issues — in order to get there.
Compromise is a recurring issue in politics and life in general. Some things we're willing to compromise on, others not, and that's fine. But it's all "taking hostages" in a sense. Passing a federal budget is itself an exercise in compromise, because the federal budget contains all sorts of unrelated items which not everyone is in agreement on. The result is that one person agrees to give ground on, say, defense or Medicare spending in return for another person giving ground on, say, EPA or NASA funding. It happens all the time.
But politics is prone to exaggeration. If a politician is willing to sign on to a certain compromise, they'll call it "comprehensive legislation." If not, they'll call it "hostage-taking." In either case, it's a compromise — the difference is whether they think it's an acceptable one.
In his article castigating the GOP for "blackmail," Nicolas Kristof imagined a scenario in which Obama threatened to diminish our military capabilities unless Congress passed gun control. Kristof says that we would denounce this because it would involve "damaging our national security — all in hopes of gaining leverage on unrelated issues." But, again, compromise frequently involves "unrelated" issues. The problem with the situation Kristof describes is that it's a trade-off that most all of us would say isn't worth it. That is, we pretty much all value having our armed forces intact over gun control.
As I've said before, there are a lot of legitimate points to be made by Democrats and Republicans on the issue of the government shutdown, the debt ceiling, and Obamacare. But the "hostage-taking" rhetoric doesn't enlighten us on those points. Whether it's leveled at Republicans or Democrats, it's more of the usual name-calling that makes it sound like one half of the debate simply doesn't care about doing what's right. And we don't need that kind of rhetoric.