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Another Absurd Debt Ceiling Fight? Enough Is Enough

People are already talking about the possibility of a government default next year if Republicans win a House majority in November. According to Axios, one of the Republicans most likely to take over the House Budget Committee is not averse using debt-limit negotiations to win concessions from President Joe Biden on such issues as immigration policy.

The basics are simple: The US will reach the statutory debt limit, last raised earlier this year, in 2023 unless Congress acts to increase it. The obvious move for Democrats is to eliminate the limit altogether during the upcoming lame-duck session, when Democrats still have majorities in both chambers of Congress and can use the reconciliation procedure to do so with simple majorities.(1) So far, however, there’s no sign that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer intend to do so.

There are several important points here.

First, this isn’t a normal blackmail situation. It is a threat is to put the US government into default and thereby destroy the economy, something that presumably neither party wants. This generally means that the blackmailer doesn’t actually have much leverage. (Yes, an even more extreme version of this worked for Sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles, but presumably that was thanks to the shock value, not actual bargaining power.)

Second, as in 2013, there’s a sense that radical Republicans believe in the principle of hostage-taking. That perverse principle, far more than any specific demand, is what’s driving the potential disaster. In 2013, the combined government shutdown and debt-limit showdown started as an attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but Republicans flailed around once it became clear they weren’t going to get a repeal.

Third, the radicals pushing a confrontation refuse to learn from history. Republicans drove the government shutdowns of 1995-1996, 2013 and 2018-2019, and each time polls showed them paying for it in terms of public opinion. What’s more, each time they failed to achieve their substantive goals.(2)Or, at least, they failed to achieve changes in public policy. If their goal was to show they were willing to disrupt the nation … well, they did manage that. 

Parties are coalitions, and Republican-aligned business interests want no part of a debt-limit crisis. And yet they don’t seem willing to fight back against the radicals. The US Chamber of Commerce, as Axios reports, is only willing to claim that “divided government” is the potential problem, which is simply not true.

Democrats don’t force confrontations over the debt limit. Traditional business-friendly Republicans don’t force them, either. They’re forced by radical Republicans such as Senator Ted Cruz, a leader of the 2013 fight, and dozens of House Republicans. And even that wouldn’t be a problem if the rest of the party was willing to stand up to them.

It’s not fair that Democrats have to spend time crazy-proofing the nation against what, as Greg Sargent notes, Republicans are saying they will do if they win office. But that’s where we are.

There appear to be no plans to prevent a debt-limit debacle, and legislation to prevent a future Republican president from destroying the civil service also looks uncertain. At least the bill to fix the Electoral Count Act is well on its way to becoming law. Democrats should be hard at work on all three of these issues right now.

For weekend reading, here are some of the best recent items from political scientists:

• Natalie Jackson on how little we know about Hispanic voters.

• Molly Reynolds on the politics of shutdown showdowns.

• Dan Drezner on Maggie Haberman and access journalism.

• Clare Brock at the Monkey Cage on hunger in the US.

• Seth Masket at Mischiefs of Faction on political parties.

• Julia Azari, also at Mischiefs, on polarization, threats to democracy and more.

• Dave Hopkins here at Bloomberg Opinion on the increase in women running for office.

• Robert Farley on M*A*S*H and the changing US relationship with the military.

(1) Greg Sargent has more of the details about the Democrats’ options. They probably can’t fully repeal the debt limit using reconciliation, but they may be able to peg it to a formula so it will never be reached, and they could certainly raise it to a preposterous number -- either of which would in effect be a repeal.

(2) The same was true in 2018, the closest the Democrats have come to forcing an extended government shutdown. They rapidly retreated.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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