Guns, debt and hostages: tough times for Obama in Congress

In Crikey today, I look at the difference between Obama’s plan for gun law reform and the debate over raising the debt ceiling. Getting gun reform through Congress, as I put it,

fits the normal paradigm of a legislative negotiation. One side supports a policy proposal, the other is opposed to it. Most of the Republicans genuinely don’t want gun reform to pass (either because they genuinely believe it’s bad policy, or because they’re in hock to the gun lobbyists); most of the Democrats, for corresponding reasons, do.

But the debt ceiling isn’t like that:

While a few Republicans may actually think that default is better than incurring any additional debt, that remains a fringe belief. For most of the GOP caucus, the debt ceiling is an opportunity to get other things they want (primarily, cuts in welfare spending) by threatening to do something that they admit would have bad consequences. So far, Obama is refusing to come to the party.

If they block gun control, Republicans are just doing what (in some sense) they think is right. But if they block a debt ceiling increase, they will be doing harm even by their own lights.

Hence the popular metaphor of hostage-taking used by many commentators –  Jon Chait is particularly fond of it. But that doesn’t quite capture it either (it could also now seem in poor taste in light of the bloodshed in Algeria).

A hostage-taker might prefer, other things being equal, not to have to shoot their hostages, but typically they are pretty much indifferent to the hostages’ welfare. That’s not the case here. The Republicans don’t want economic chaos; they’re willing to threaten it to get their way, but it’s a threat that they very much hope not to have to carry out.

My guess is that Obama just has to hold his ground on debt and the Republicans will bow to the inevitable, but it’ll be much more of a hard slog to get anything much out of them on guns. What makes gun reform even more difficult (although I didn’t have space to mention this in the article) is that quite a few Democrats will be reluctant to embrace it, whereas he can expect to have the Democrat caucus solidly behind him on a debt ceiling vote.

Either way, it should be an enthralling few weeks in Congress. Read the whole thing here.


2 thoughts on “Guns, debt and hostages: tough times for Obama in Congress

  1. I’ll have to lend you my copy of Game Theory and Politics by Steven J Brams. Chicken is a game where there is no optimal outcome for both players. Somebody wins and somebody loses or at worst they both lose. Prisoners Dilemma on the other hand has an optimal outcome, the ‘nobody talks, everybody walks’ option. Also has good sections on coalition building, vote trading, insincere voting, and strategic voting by electors. A lot more relevant in the US, where legislators are less predictable. Still applicable here in Australia, but more useful in a balance of power situation.


  2. Thanks Greg. I’ve got his 1985 book Rational Politics, but it’s a while since I studied decision theory properly. I wouldn’t claim that the debt ceiling “game” can be strictly modelled as Chicken, because the players’ options aren’t symmetrical, but from the Republican point of view it looks a lot like that.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.