You’re stuck on a quiz show. Name an American city and state with 10 syllables. Simple, you think. Next door: Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. It even has a zip code, although fewer than 10,000 people live there.
I think of it every time I speak to a classmate who thought joining Congress would be fun. So he ran (not from New Mexico) and won. One day he told me about a game they play in the house. Republicans want to scrap the works and are refusing to pass a budget. Threatening to stop paying all the bills will get them what they want, so they set off to shut down the government.
After a painful time, they reach a deal. Sometimes – take your pick – they manage to create a stink by turning things off for a few days.
“So what’s next in the land of truth or consequences?” I would nudge when speaking to my chosen friend.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” he says. “It’s not about truth OR consequences. It is truth AND. First the truth, then the consequences.”
I think of that every time the Republican shutdown threatens. But I wonder why anyone in Congress is still trying to do this. It’s all the same script, and it always seems to explode with Republicans.
Not paying your bills is something most of us have grappled with at some point. But we don’t use it as a threat unless we’re talking about a single, offensive bill. They were offered $125 for a quick job, but the bill came out to $195. There are consequences. A utility company will turn you off. Your credit will be blocked. Nobody’s going to include the deadbeat at dinner because last time he tried to slip his bill under everyone else’s, so the “group banker” had to carry it.
Republicans are now talking about “prioritizing bills,” meaning paying off who they want and weakening some others. This comes out in the press or on TV as a hiss or a tantrum.
But in the end come the consequences. These are not nice people. Many won’t win re-election because they can incite a frenzy if they win a primary, but they don’t have the breadth to win a general election — the scourge of many in the GOP these days. If the no-pay trick doesn’t work, there’s always the option of simply rewriting your past to change your sources of income and cut the dirt. A Long Island Congressman, George Santos, just tried it on. The episodes haven’t arrived yet – but they will.
This is not the same as deferring bills. Some of us dealt with budgetary crises at work or at home by begging for mercy – and it worked. When I started this newspaper, the offseasons were a lot more brutal than they are now. Nobody paid their ad bill in the spring or fall off-season. This meant that we got nothing in the month of May. We picked up the phone to explain our deadbeat status to the creditors.
“Why bother with that?” asked a misguided advertiser. “No one does. They don’t ask for permission. Just put it off for a month or two and you’ll be forgiven.”
But a debt crisis in Congress doesn’t quite work that way, my friends tell me. It’s all about credit. In life, cut off suppliers. You dance the dance, but only for so long.
This becomes a repeating script in Congress. Newt Gingrich tried Bill Clinton in the 1990s and it didn’t work. As things ground to a halt, the public blamed Republicans for a stunt. They had to retire, with stinging publicity.
This script works so reliably that the TV show The West Wing once called it up. Writers have created a script in which the President even walks part of the way up the hill, but is stopped by congressional Republicans when he reaches Capitol Hill.
As you learn, this script doesn’t work in real life because we’ve seen it all before. Democrats always spend recklessly, but Republicans rarely propose anything useful. They kiss and make up, but they’re like a couple. They know they’re headed for the rocks, but bets arise on how long that will take.
Perhaps the lesson lies in casting new, nicer characters to lead the Republicans. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican who took a week to be elected House Speaker, appears to be carrying a placard: The PMO desk is open. Pay me off and I’ll get you a job on the Plum Committee. Or – the ultimate bombshell – get support from the national party in your next election.
It’s always about consequences, and they’re always lurking, silently lining up. My friend was right. It’s not truth or consequences. It is the truth and… and yet it will come without warning.
The original show “Truth or Consequences” aired in 1950 in just eight episodes. “Truth AND Consequences” is still alive.
The author ([email protected]) is a co-founder of the Aspen Daily News and his column appears here on Sundays.