The Washington Post

Meet the default caucus

On January 15 Congresswoman Shelley Capito (R-WV) voted in favor of the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, praising spending provisions including $8.6 billion in Head Start funding, $41 billion for highways, and $63 billion for the VA Department. But less than a month later, she voted against the debt limit extension required for the Treasury to pay for that spending.

In essence, Capito voted to run up charges on the nation’s credit card and then refused to pay the bill when it came due. And she wasn’t alone: 135 representatives and 17 senators voted the same, a ‘default caucus’ made up almost exclusively of Republicans. Many - perhaps even most - of these legislators may very well have liked to vote 'yes' on the debt ceiling bill, but felt constrained against doing so by pressure from Tea Party-aligned deficit hawks. But the fact a significant faction in Congress can vote to run up debt, refuse to pay for it, and bill themselves as "fiscal conservatives" shows just how much that term has lost its meaning. You can search below to see how your representatives voted on these measures. (Capito did not respond to a request for comment).

In contrast, 63 representatives and 26 senators – all Republican - simply voted ‘nay’ on both spending and debt bills: say what you will about their politics, you can at least respect their ideological consistency. The same can be said for the 215 in the House and the 54 in the Senate – mostly Democrats, but some Republicans - who voted in favor of both measures.


It's worth noting that historically, the parties not controlling the White House have used debt ceiling votes as opportunities for grandstanding and accusations of fiscal recklessness - during the Bush administration, it was the Democrats voting against the debt ceiling increases. The perpetual see-sawing on the debt limit makes hypocrisy a near-inevitability. Default caucus member Tom Cole, for instance, claims that his previous debt-ceiling support had hinged on "meaningful reforms to spending" or "ongoing economic recovery efforts," even though his "aye" vote on a clean debt ceiling bill in 2004 demonstrates otherwise.

The 152 members of our modern default caucus are unique in their refusal to acknowledge that federal spending currently isn't possible without federal borrowing. It’s a throwback to pre-recession thinking, when Americans believed they could run up debt indefinitely and worry about the consequences later.

This brand of magical thinking betrays a deep unseriousness about the messy, difficult work of deficit-cutting. Whether Republican primary voters will agree is a different question altogether.


Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.



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Zachary A. Goldfarb · February 20, 2014

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