There you are, stuck on a quiz show. Name an American city and state that includes 10 syllables. Easy, you think. Right next door: Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. It even has a zip code, though fewer than 10,000 people live there.
I think of it every time I talk to a school classmate who thought it would be fun to join Congress. So he ran (not from New Mexico) and won. One day he told me of a game they play in the House. The Republicans want to junk up the works, refusing to pass a budget. Threatening to stop paying all bills will get them what they want, so they are off to shut down the government.
After a painful period, they reach a deal. Sometimes — take your pick — they manage to create a stink by shutting things down for a few days.
“So how goes it in the land of truth or consequences?” I’d prod when I talked to my elected friend.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” he says. “It’s not Truth OR consequences. It’s truth AND. First, truth, then consequences.”
I think about that every time the Republican shutdown looms. But I wonder why anyone in Congress tries this anymore. It is invariably the same script, and it always seems to blow up on the Republicans.
Not paying your bills is something most of us have dealt with at some point. But we don’t use it as a threat, unless we’re talking about a single, objectionable bill. You were quoted $125 for a quick job, but the bill came in at $195. There are consequences. A utility company will cut you off. Your credit will get shut down. Nobody will include the deadbeat at dinner because the last time he tried to slide his tab in with everyone else’s, so the “group banker” had to carry him.
The Republicans are now talking about “prioritizing bills,” which means they will pay off whom they want and stiff some others. This comes out in the press or on TV as a hissy fit or temper tantrum.
But at the end of it all come the consequences. These are not nice people. Many will not win reelection because they can whip up a frenzy winning a primary, but they don’t have the breadth to win a general election — the scourge of many in the GOP these days. When the no-pay ploy doesn’t work, there’s always the chance of just rewriting your past to change your sources of income and bypass the muck. A congressman from Long Island, George Santos, just tried that on for size. The consequences have not yet come home to roost — but they will.
This is not the same as putting off bills. Some of us treated budgetary shortfalls at work or home by begging for mercy — and it worked. When I started this paper, the offseasons were a lot more brutal than they are now. Nobody paid his ad bill going into the spring or fall offseason. That meant that by the month of May, we were running on empty. We’d hit the phones to explain to creditors our deadbeat status.
“Why bother with that?” one errant advertiser asked me. “Nobody does that. They don’t ask permission. Just put it off a month or two, and you’ll be forgiven.”
But a debt crunch in Congress doesn’t quite work that way, my friends tell me. It’s all about credit. In life, suppliers cut you off. You dance the dance, but only so long.
This is becoming a repeating script in Congress. Newt Gingrich tried it on Bill Clinton in the 1990s and it didn’t work. When things ground to a halt, the public blamed the Republicans for a stunt. They had to back off, with stinging publicity.
That script works so reliably that “The West Wing” TV show once invoked it. Writers crafted a script where the president even walks part of the way up the Hill but is stood up by congressional Republicans by the time he reached Capitol Hill.
That script, you learn, doesn’t work in real life because we’ve seen this all before. The Democrats always spend recklessly, but the Republicans rarely propose anything useful. So they kiss and make up, but they’re like a couple. You know they’re headed for the rocks, but the betting springs up on how long that’ll take.
Maybe the lesson lies in casting new, nicer characters to lead the Republicans. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican who took a week to get elected speaker of the House, seems to wear a placard: the PMO desk is open. Pay me off and I’ll get you a plum committee assignment. Or — the ultimate bomb — you get national party support in your next election.
It’s always about consequences, and they always lurk, sliding into line silently. My friend was right. It’s not Truth or Consequences. It’s Truth and ... yet it will arrive with little warning.
The original “Truth or Consequences” show was broadcast through only eight episodes in 1950. “Truth AND Consequences” is still alive.
The writer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and his column appears here Sundays.