A Mechanism to Break Federal Budget Deadlocks

Even if the protracted debt-ceiling deadlock is broken before we default on any interest payments — as it likely will be — the world will have suffered more unnecessary economic pain and loss of confidence in our financial system.

The built-in adversarial mechanism in our two-party system is meant to address the concern famously expressed in Lord Acton’s 1887 letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

But we can’t help wondering whether some mechanism can’t be implemented to break political deadlocks before they damage our economic stability and national credibility. Such a mechanism would not only prevent economic turmoil in the midst of heated philosophical debates like the one now taking place, but also prevent such crises from further dinging our moral authority around the world. It’s hard to be taken seriously as the leader of the free world when our financial system is held hostage to the kind of quarrel you might expect between spouses over how to finance the kids’ college education.

In 2000 when George W. Bush and Al Gore found themselves deadlocked on the outcome of the presidential election, they turned to the Supreme Court in the case of Bush v. Gore. The Supremes tossed the win to Bush. The result was anguishing for Gore supporters, but the timely decision spared the nation something potentially more painful — a messy and prolonged tussle that could only have ended bitterly with half the population scorning what it would deem an illegitimate presidency.

This current debt-ceiling deadlock cries out for a similar mechanism. If a deadlock reaches the point where it poses a threat to economic stability — certainly further out than six days from a potential default on debt payments as the situation stands now — even a prior agreement to flip a coin to choose between competing plans would be better than rushing headlong over the cliff into economic turmoil.

One option might be legislation designating the Supreme Court as the arbiter in such circumstances. But that would raise fears that the party controlling the bench may actually angle to invoke the deadlock-breaker in the expectation that the Court would act in a partisan fashion. A better solution may be a mechanism that requires a drawing to pick randomly the supreme court of one of the fifty states. The uncertainly as to the panel of jurists to be chosen may provide enough incentive for the two sides to compromise in a timely fashion — the way 98% of all lawsuits are resolved despite their inherently adversarial nature.

Such a deadlock-breaking mechanism before a situation reaches a crisis stage would also serve the important objective of encouraging each party promptly to put forward its best, most reasonable proposal, rather than one that seeks merely to shift the middle with an eye toward an eventual compromise that may never come. Even a politically partisan state supreme court — most of us would assume — is imbued with enough good faith — especially with the eyes of the nation watching — to pick the more reasonable plan over a flawed one.

Even if some of us disagree with its choice, the collective pain would be far less than the consequences of another collapse of faith in our system.