Are Republicans More Like Terrorists or Temper-Prone Children?

By Mike Dorf

There is a longstanding debate over whether it makes sense to call someone a "terrorist" simply in virtue of the means he uses to achieve his political ends.  On one view, whether someone is a terrorist depends on whether he deliberately attacks civilians for political ends, while on another view, everything depends on the justice of the underlying cause, its history, and so forth.  In this second view, means that, if used for an unjust end, would be properly deemed terrorism, are something else (like "armed resistance") if used for a just end.  I tend to favor the former view, which might allow that terrorism could perhaps be justified in extreme cases for righteous causes but it would still be terrorism.  However, I don't have a substantial intellectual or moral investment in that position and will not attempt to defend it here.  Instead, I want to draw a parallel to an increasingly common usage that has been emerging: The tendency to treat the impending tea party/Republican bargaining position on the debt ceiling question as a kind of "legislative terrorism," as characterized by George Packer in last week's New Yorker.

The basics of the metaphor should be clear enough.  Most sensible people agree that a U.S. default on its debt would be very bad for the U.S. and the world economy in both the short term and the long term.  I'll stipulate that there are probably some tea partiers and other Republicans in Congress who sincerely think that defaulting on the debt would not be as bad as continuing to add to the debt at current rates, but I'll also beg the reader's indulgence in assuming that at least some Republicans--especially among the party leadership--believe that it would be better to raise the debt ceiling either cleanly or by agreeing to whatever compromise ordinary politics produces on spending, than it would be to default on the debt because they don't get as much in spending cuts as they want.  If so, these Republicans are engaging in Packer's "legislative terrorism."  Indeed, we might even call it "legislative suicide bombing": They are willing to blow up the economy--and themselves--to get what they want.

But is that really any different from many tough-minded negotiations over legislation or other matters?  Consider the NFL contract negotiations.  Professional football generates more revenue than goes into it, so the parties have an incentive to reach a deal: The cancellation of the season would mean that money that could have been divided up between the players and the owners will not be generated.   (NFL owners could be much better off in the short run if there is no season, should they get to keep the tv revenue to which their contracts entitle them but don't have to pay the costs of fielding teams.  I'm doubtful that this will hold up, but in any event, if this example isn't quite accurate for my purposes, assume a labor negotiation that is.)  In any labor or other dispute, each side wants to get as much of the surplus as it can, and the more willing one side is to appear to be crazy--i.e., willing to accept a cancelled season or otherwise take a loss--the more leverage that side has.  If we don't think of the NFL owners as engaging in "terrorism" when they lock the players out, or, in other circumstances, if we don't think of workers as engaging in "terrorism" when they strike, then why should the Republicans in Congress be branded as terrorists?

The answer is that they shouldn't be--at least if we assume that terrorism in bargaining should be defined as any willingness to use hardball tactics.  But what if we use an analogy to the second way of defining terrorism, by reference to not just means but also ends?  Implicit in Packer's article and other uses of the terrorism trope is that the Republicans' substantive bargaining position is unreasonable.

In no particular order, the main drivers of the deficit and debt are: 1) the Bush tax cuts, grudgingly extended in the lame duck session by Obama due to Republican insistence in the Senate;  2) increased military spending to fund wars that have been supported by Republicans and Democrats, but the former more enthusiastically; 3) health-care cost inflation; and 4) the recession.  The Republican position puts 1 and 2 off the table.  The Ryan plan would ostensibly address 3 by converting Medicare into a block grant program, which could reduce the overall rate of growth in federal spending but mostly by limiting care rather than bringing down costs, and for that reason, enjoys only tepid support from other Republicans.  As for the recession, conservative anti-Keynesian dogma says that the best way to fight it is to promote economic growth by shrinking government regulation and transfer programs.

Suppose one thinks that whether the term "legislative terrorism" is apt depends on the substantive goals to which threats of non-cooperation are turned.  If one also thinks, as I do, that the Republican policies are bad on all fronts, then that could be a basis for the judgment that they are "legislative terrorists," in the way that one's view that al Qaeda and Sendero Luminoso are terrorist organizations might depend not just on the fact that they use violence against civilians to achieve political ends but also on the respective conclusions that the establishment of a modern Caliphate and the replacement of the Peruvian government with a Maoist dictatorship are illegitimate ends (or at least ends that don't justify blowing up civilians).

However, the difficulty with making the aptness of the term "legislative terrorist" turn on the substance of the policy goals is that--as with real terrorism--the term then loses its distinctive meaning.  It begins to look like just another way of saying that whoever is condemning the Republicans' tactics has policy disagreements with them.  If the positions were reversed and the Democrats had spines, would someone who agreed with the Democratic policy choices want to say that Democrats who used a debt-ceiling vote as leverage to repeal the upper end of the Bush tax cuts was engaging in legislative terrorism?

Nonetheless, the "legislative terrorist" label may be appropriate after all because there may be a third way of understanding the circumstances that makes some reference to the content of policy disagreements but does not directly depend on one's policy views as such.  The Republican bargaining position isn't unreasonable just because the Republicans' underlying policy commitments are wrong; indeed, for the Republicans who hold those commitments, they're right.  What makes the Republican position unreasonable even if one starts from a point of policy neutrality is that it is so demanding.  They want to drastically cut spending that had virtually nothing to do with running up the deficit and debt, while preserving and extending tax breaks for the wealthy, preserving military spending at levels that dwarf those of all other countries, and effectively end an entitlement program that has been a cornerstone of the social contract for half a century--and if they don't get their way on each of these measures (and some restrictions on Planned Parenthood and NPR to boot), they'll blow up the economy.

Still, the terrorism analogy is at least inflammatory. A better analogy might be that of a young child who pitches a fit if he doesn't get his way.  Such children can be extremely effective negotiators precisely because they are willing to act against their own interests.  Calling their bluff is risky because they're not bluffing.  And so, to return to the debt ceiling question, the key question for the next round of negotiations is whether Speaker Boehner is simply using the threat of Tea Party terrorism/tantrums to get as good a deal as he can--in which case a deal can and likely will be struck--or whether the our-way-or-the-highway wing of the Republican Party is actually in control.

Postscript: The foregoing assumes that failure to raise the debt ceiling would eventually lead to a default.  However, as noted in this CNBC story, Secretary Geithner could certainly avert that result temporarily and perhaps even indefinitely.