Debt ceiling: How the 2023 drama is ‘100% different’ than 2011

Many in Washington and Wall Street are looking to 2011 as a reason not to freak out about the current debt-ceiling standoff. That year, a similar crisis ended with a last-minute agreement.

Investors “are thinking, I've seen this movie many times before and I know the end of it,” Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi said.

But should investors really be so sanguine? Maybe not, according to Mike Sommers, who had a front-row seat to the drama in 2011 as chief of staff for then-Speaker John Boehner.

This year’s showdown, he said, “is 100% different,” adding: “I just don't know where the deal space is here.”

Several key factors that were in place during 2011 are missing this time around. Back then, the talks began much earlier and there was a different political environment and mutual agreement from the get go that deficit reduction was a top priority for both sides.

President Obama and Boehner also socialized in their off hours, making dealmaking a little easier.

“We had a willing dance partner in President Obama who understood that the political dynamics changed significantly in 2010 and that he needed a deal on this,” said Sommers, who is now the CEO of the American Petroleum Institute.

Similarities and differences

Both the current standoff and 2011 are similar in one respect: They feature a Democratic president on the eve of a re-election bid facing off against a newly ascendant House GOP majority intent on curbing what they see as his excesses.

But those 2011 talks began early and after Obama had established the Bowles-Simpson Commission a year earlier with a mission of finding a balanced budget.

Those talks also featured a completely different personal dynamic between the leaders. Obama and Boehner saw each other again and again in the months that led up to that deal, from the formal meetings to golf outings.

By contrast, President Biden and Speaker McCarthy have only been in the same room a handful of times in 2023 and their interactions have more often been notable for heated remarks and personal acrimony.

Staff meetings also only began in recent days as the leaders belatedly try to find their way to a bipartisan deal against a very tight timeline.

Changes to the political landscape

The vast differences with 2011 are a result of shifts in the political landscape on both sides of the aisle. Some of those shifts are the result of how the 2011 crisis played out.

For Biden, who was right in the middle of those earlier talks as a lead negotiator, things are different now precisely because the 2011 openness to negotiate was later seen by Democrats as a mistake.

Veterans of the Obama administration have regularly expressed regret that they agreed to negotiate on something they say should be inviolable: the full faith and credit of the United States.

The then-Vice President came out clearly looking for a different approach in the future. “I’d be frustrated if I was sitting there as well,” Biden said in August 2011 of his Democratic colleagues even as he rounded up votes for the deal that eventually passed.

This time around, Biden and his team may be sitting down to negotiate but they are still stretching some credulity by maintaining even the talks this week are actually negotiating on spending cuts more generally, not over the debt limit per se.

On the other side, Republicans look to 2011 as a model for how to use the debt ceiling as leverage but the political dynamics have changed there as well.

This time around, the powerful conservative wing of the GOP caucus has driven the GOP to demand much more and given McCarthy much less room to negotiate.

Last month, Republicans passed a sprawling proposal that is essentially a GOP wishlist not just focused on spending levels and deficits, but also addressing topics like tax policy, student loans and the Biden’s administration’s climate change policies.

The legacy of 2011

The 2011 crisis eventually ended just two days before the Treasury Department had projected the U.S. would run out of cash.

It was the last time a debt-ceiling agreement resulted in concrete deficit reduction. The Budget Control Act of 2011 led to $917 billion in deficit reduction over the following decade, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

But it also came with steep costs. Markets swooned in the summer of 2011 and the brush with default led to the US receiving its first credit downgrade in history.

Even with the memory of those costs, the concerns remain that both Washington and the financial sector are downplaying the chances of a default, an event that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said this week would mean “economic and financial catastrophe.”

Mike Konczal, a director at the Roosevelt Institute, noted in a press briefing Monday that in looking at recent history “I worry that the lesson [lawmakers] are taking is that a solution will show up at the last minute, as it did in 2011.”

Ben Werschkul is Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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