Skip to main content

3 ways to avert Washington's next disaster

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
October 21, 2013 -- Updated 1424 GMT (2224 HKT)
Tourists flock to memorials in Washington on Saturday, October 19, the first weekend after the end of the partial government shutdown. The Washington Monument and other landmarks across the country have reopened to the public after the 16-day shutdown. The government impasse ended when President Barack Obama signed a spending and debt ceiling agreement that Congress passed, averting a possible default. Tourists flock to memorials in Washington on Saturday, October 19, the first weekend after the end of the partial government shutdown. The Washington Monument and other landmarks across the country have reopened to the public after the 16-day shutdown. The government impasse ended when President Barack Obama signed a spending and debt ceiling agreement that Congress passed, averting a possible default.
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
Government back in business
  • David Frum: Twice Washington has come to the edge of default
  • Extreme politicians in either party could trigger another potential default, he says
  • Reforms could eliminate that possibility, by removing debt ceiling, Frum says
  • Frum: Give party leaders more power to keep their members in line

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- Twice in two years, the United States has teetered on the verge of a catastrophic default: once in summer 2011, again in fall 2013.

In 2011, default was averted when President Obama yielded significant concessions to Republicans in Congress. In 2013, it was the Republicans who yielded. If these confrontations continue, however, someday somebody will miscalculate, and over the edge the whole world will go.

I won't take time here to parse precisely how bad such a catastrophe would be: worse than 1931? or merely another 2008? All agree it would be very, very bad. And it should be a rule of politics that very, very bad ought to be avoided -- all the more so when it can be avoided very, very easily.

David Frum
David Frum

In 2011 and 2013, the people forcing the catastrophe happened to be Republicans confronting a Democratic president. Next time, however, they might well be Democrats seeking leverage against a Republican president.

Over the past dozen years, both parties have become more militant in the way they play politics. If the Republicans look more extreme today, it's also true that they are the party out of power. Wait until it's the Democrats turn to go out, and see how they act.

Yet there are Americans worried by the radicalization of the country's politics. They belong to both parties and to neither. They recognize that something is going seriously wrong -- and that this trend could have serious consequences. Here are some ideas that such Americans might want to consider. I'll start with the easiest first, then work up to the more ambitious:

1) Abolish the debt ceiling.

McCain: Shutdown tactics 'fool's errand'
GOP strategist: This has hurt the brand
Sen. Cruz: GOP failed, 'didn't unite'

The debt ceiling is an artifact of the First World War. In the 19th century, Congress authorized each and every bond issue by the United States. The costs of global war rendered that practice untenable, so instead Congress granted the executive branch a generalized authority to borrow up to a set amount.

It seemed a good idea at the time. In the modern context, however, the debt ceiling creates very negative incentives for Congress. Congress can first vote to create a deficit, then vote to refuse to cover that deficit. Remember, it's Congress that sets the level of tax. It's Congress that sets the level of spending. If Congress is unhappy about the difference between those two levels, Congress has the power to close it. There's no need to threaten to blow up the financial world.

Four things we learned from government shutdown

2) Reform campaign finance to strengthen party leaders.

The Republicans who pushed this latest crisis were challenging their own party leaders fully as much as they were challenging President Obama. Speaker John Boehner has repeatedly made clear his dislike for debt-ceiling extortion. Yet he has lacked the power to stop it.

TV commentators snark at Boehner's weak hold on his caucus. Who else would do better? Boehner lacks sticks and lacks carrots. He doesn't choose committee chairs. He does not dispense pork barrel favors. He can't strip a recalcitrant member of his or her Republican nomination at the next primary. Most crippling of all, and quite unlike the powerful speakers of former times, he does not control access to party funds.

In most democracies, most political money is raised and spent by party leaders. The United States, by contrast, has built a uniquely candidate-centered fundraising system. This system has gradually accreted over the past 70 years, the byproduct of restrictions by reformers and innovation by nonparty groups.

The party-dominated politics of 1830-1970 had a lot of problems, no doubt. But the post-party politics since 1970 has delivered even worse results. One reform would make a big and immediate difference: Lift the cap on the maximum amount parties can give to their candidates: today only $5,000 per House candidate -- unchanged since 1940 -- plus an additional $42,000 of party-coordinated funds.

Right now, a sufficiently obtrusive House member doesn't have much to fear from defying Boehner. (In the last midterm election cycle, Boehner and his leadership PAC together raised less money than GOP outlier Michele Bachmann.) If, however, the speaker could open or close a million-dollar contribution spigot, that member would listen as attentively as the members used to listen to House Speaker Sam Rayburn -- and might turn a deafer ear to Heritage Action when it proposes to blow up the world to score a point.

GOP, Boehner take shutdown hit in new CNN poll

3) Make continuing resolutions automatic.

The United States is not the only country to have budget disputes. Other democracies cope with these inevitable disagreements by the simple rule: If no budget can be agreed, simply carry over the previous year's budget month by month until agreement is ultimately reached. While politicians negotiate, travelers can still renew their passports. Obvious, no? Why not here?

The fact is, most of the time, Americans already do this. Formal budgeting tends to sputter to a halt in periods of divided government. The continuing resolutions that fund the federal government were invented as exactly the kind of work-around that other democracies use. So let's ensure that the continuing resolutions continue when they are needed most, when the differences seem most acute. The whole point of democracy is that there are no disagreements so acute that they are worth overthrowing the government and the state.

And indeed, when disagreements do reach the ultimately dangerous point, somebody will blink (usually the somebody doing worse in the opinion polls). Why let things reach that point in the first place?

The short answer is that there are political factions that value conflict almost as an end in itself. But most people don't -- and the more explicitly the questions are raised, "Should the government function?" and "Should government pay its bills in full and on time?" -- the larger the constituency we can amass for simple reforms to make government work for all who pay for it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

Part of complete coverage on
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?