Mark Patterson was chief of staff at the Department of the Treasury from 2009 until May of 2013 — and so directly involved in the last few debt-ceiling negotiations. He's now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. After reading my pessimistic take on the debt ceiling, he sent along some thoughts on the tricks Congress could use to raise the debt ceiling without saying that's what they're doing. Here's Patterson:
Ezra Klein, along with Ben White and MJ Lee, have separately expressed increasing apprehension about the next battle in the debt limit wars. They both worry that there is no discernible common ground between the president’s position (he won’t negotiate over the debt limit, period) and the Republicans’ insistence on some major policy concession in exchange for an increase in the limit (spending cuts equal to or greater than any increase in the limit, or a delay in the implementation of Obamacare, depending on which Republican you ask).
Ezra and Ben are both right to worry. The president has correctly pointed out that the responsibility for avoiding default lies solely with Congress because only Congress has the power to raise the limit. He really had no other choice because the alternative — opening himself to endless demands for ransom in the form of unwise policy concessions – would be completely untenable for him and for the office of the presidency.
Yet this does mean the nation’s creditworthiness is solely in the hands of a Congress whose current majority in the House has a less than stellar track record of dealing with difficult challenges. As Ezra wrote, there is a real chance they could overreach, or miscalculate, or both, with the result being an unthinkable first-ever default for the United States.
However, these same basic risks existed both before and after the president announced his no-negotiating policy, and in the end Republicans have managed to find ways out – first via a combination of the sequester and the clever, albeit politically diabolical, McConnell disapproval process invented by then-McConnell aide Rohit Kumar, and most recently via the so-called Williamsburg Accord, which purported to “suspend” the limit but actually just raised it without demanding anything from the president at all. Both of those episodes provide some clues about how Republicans may try to defuse the time bomb that is now ticking in their lap toward the mid-October deadline.
First, process matters. The McConnell process was convoluted, which was helpful because its complexity masked the fact that it really just allowed the debt limit to go up without Republican fingerprints. Therefore another Rube Goldbergian process may be useful again this time.
Second, the ability to assign blame matters. It was important to Republicans that the McConnell process allowed them to blame the president for increasing the debt limit. After all, they voted against raising it!
Likewise, the Williamsburg Accord allowed Republicans to blame the Senate, which is always a popular thing in the House. (Never mind that passage of a Senate budget resolution really has nothing to do with the debt limit. The House obsession with the Senate, as Ezra noted, appears to be rooted in something deeper than logic.) Therefore a solution that gives Republicans a way to blame somebody else in October will probably help grease the skids. Some combination of changes to the congressional budget process and a freshened up version of the McConnell mechanism may answer the mail here.
Finally, language matters – a lot. The Williamsburg Accord “suspended” the debt limit. Unlike virtually all previous debt limit increases, it did not specify a dollar figure for the new amount of debt subject to the limit. Instead it simply stated that that the new debt limit shall be the existing debt plus any new debt that is accumulated by May 19, 2013. This allowed Republicans to omit from their bill any mention of the fact that the debt would increase to the eye-popping number of $16,699,421,000.
A similar sleight of hand, then, would seem useful in writing something that can pass in October. And speaking of the importance of language, it will probably be conducive to the October solution if the bill includes some “reforms,” some balanced budget “requirements,” and perhaps some “prohibitions” that, taken together, communicate change, rectitude, and toughness.
If they’re wise, Republican leaders will recognize that it’s in their own interests to write this next iteration in a way that makes the debt limit process change permanent. For example, a McConnell-style disapproval vote every year or two would be harmless, as long as the threat of default is taken off the table for good. Otherwise, this boomerang is going to keep looping right back at Republicans over and over again, with all of the same political pain for them and all of the same risks to our economy.
The bottom line is that there are ways to write a debt limit increase that get the job done and protect the nation from default while minimizing the self-inflicted political damage associated with the debt limit in the past. This does not necessarily mean Republicans will avail themselves of these means in time to avert default. I’ll be biting my nails in October just like Ezra and Ben. But there are ways to skin this cat. “The Balanced Budget Enforcement and Debt Limit Reform Act of 2013” has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?