The United States government has a general policy against paying ransom for a hostage. This is not because paying ransoms is an ineffective policy. Most hostage takers would be happy to return the hostage for money, so as a short-term solution, it does work. The problem is, long term, paying ransom just encourages many more hostages to be taken. Not only have President Obama and Congressional Democrats fed this self-perpetuating pattern, they don’t even bother to disarm the hostage takers.

The hostage-taking by Republicans started early in the administration and has only grown progressively worse because Obama has always been prepared to pay the ransom. During the stimulus fight, when Susan Collins (R-ME) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) made the ridiculous demand that exactly $100 billion be removed from the stimulus, instead of letting the hostage die Obama, paid their ransom.

When Scott Brown (R-MA) demanded Democrats remove a $20 billion bank fee from the financial reform bill, instead of letting Brown kill the hostage, Democrats again paid the ransom.

Jim Bunning (R-KY) was allowed to hold an extension of unemployment benefits hostage until Democrats paid the ransom of offset cuts in spending.

As I write, some Republicans are still holding the defense authorization bill hostage unless the DADT repeal is removed. They are now not only holding extension of the middle class tax cuts hostage, demanding the ransom of also extending the tax cuts on the rich, but they have threatened to hold every other bill in the Senate hostage, as well. With all signs their play on the Bush tax cuts will succeed, they are already planning to hold a fix to the SGR (Medicare sustainable growth rate, or “doctor fix”) hostage until prevention programs in the hew health care law are defunded.

Not surprisingly, basic game theory is proven right again. The more Obama and the Democrats folded to these Senate Republican tactics, the more boldly and frequently Republicans used them.

Don’t let the hostage die if you can easily disarm the hostage taker

In theory, I agree with Paul Krugman when he writes that if need be, Obama should let the Senate Republicans metaphorically kill their hostage in the Bush tax cut fight to put a stop to this escalating behavior. But the reality of the past two years is far more absurd.

The Senate Republicans in this metaphor don’t even have a real gun. They are only holding a water pistols on their hostage. The Republican minority can only hold legislation hostage for their extreme demands by abusing the filibuster, but there is in fact nothing stopping a majority of the Senate Democrats from using the nuclear option to kill the filibuster at any moment. With the filibuster gone, they could pass all these bills without paying any ransom. Republicans may be taking hostages, but its the Democrats fault for letting the Republicans walk the Senate floor with a loaded procedural weapons.

Before ever considering letting a hostage die, you always try to disarm the hostage taker, something Obama and the Senate Democrats refuse to do.