The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mitch McConnell is laughing in your faces, Democrats. Do something about this.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

There’s an old maxim in politics that declares: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” Well, you’re also losing if you are sputtering with ineffectual outrage even as your opponent’s primary response is to laugh derisively in your face.

That’s effectively what’s happening, after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Republicans unanimously voted Monday night to drive the United States into default. Republicans filibustered a suspension of the debt limit, which if breached would unleash economic Armageddon.

Democrats appear likely to opt for Plan B, which is to raise the debt limit in the reconciliation process. But if so, they have another option: They can try to use reconciliation to effectively nullify the debt limit, which if it works would end this nonsense for good.

What just happened makes this option newly relevant. Indeed, what Democrats themselves are thinking about what just happened forcefully argues for giving this option serious consideration.

Punchbowl News reports that Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Democrats are steamed because McConnell is forcing them to raise the debt limit, which is all you can do in reconciliation, rather than suspend it, which is politically easier:

Schumer and his fellow Senate Democrats remain furious about McConnell’s handling of this issue, although there doesn’t seem to be much they can do about it. Yet it’s impossible to overstate the level of frustration among Democrats right now. Democrats say McConnell is cynically using this issue to force Democrats up in 2022, such as Sens. Maggie Hassan (N.H.) and Mark Kelly (Ariz.), to vote for a debt-limit increase.

But if this is a problem, then there is something that can be done about it. David Super, a law professor at Georgetown, has suggested that Democrats use reconciliation to tie the size of the debt limit to whatever is necessary to cover the national debt at any given moment.

Before, Democrats had an understandable reason for refraining from this. They didn’t want to use reconciliation to deal with the debt limit at all, because it will complicate passing their multitrillion-dollar social policy bill.

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But now, if Democrats may have to use reconciliation on the debt limit anyway, why not consider using the process to nullify it?

How this could work

The relevant statute requires a reconciliation measure to “specify the amounts by which the statutory limit on the public debt is to be changed.” That could apply to tying the debt limit to the national debt, Super says.

We don’t know if the Senate parliamentarian will accept this. But she might conclude that “amounts” in the plural creates space for this to be the way the “change” in the debt limit is “specified.”

“You can probably change the number to something you don’t spell out in ink, but that you describe,” Super told me. “You tie it to the national debt. That is a number. It’s just not a number you wrote out.”

Democrats should at least seek the parliamentarian’s opinion on this. “The leadership should be checking all options,” Super said.

This would also help solve the political problem that Democrats themselves have identified. In this scenario, they wouldn’t be voting on a hard number for a new ceiling, as they fear. But if they simply raise the limit they will be voting on a hard number, Super notes, making the former “preferable.”

Alternately, nix the filibuster

Another option, of course, would be to suspend the filibuster to do the above in a clean vote (or to simply suspend the debt limit). After all, what we just saw blows up one of the most cherished arguments for the filibuster: That it encourages bipartisanship.

In fact, the filibuster incentivizes the weaponization of partisanship, as this episode demonstrates. Republicans used it to block something they themselves say must happen for the good of the country, for the instrumental purpose of cornering Democrats into a tough political vote.

McConnell has justified this with gales of snickering bad faith. He keeps saying Democrats must deal with the debt limit alone. That’s an invented rule. But that aside, Democrats would have the option of a clean debt limit suspension — thus doing it themselves as Republicans demand — but this is blocked by … the filibuster, for the cynical end of fouling up Democrats’ reconciliation push. There is zero argument for keeping the filibuster under such conditions.

Stop rewarding GOP bad faith

Whichever route Democrats choose, the bigger point is that all this requires a forceful response rooted in a realistic appraisal of GOP bad faith and the ways it is rewarded by media coverage.

Democrats hoped to shame Republican into doing the right thing. McConnell responded with nothing more than an extended cackle. But beyond that, press coverage has broadly treated this dispute as a typical Washington procedural skirmish.

The coverage tends to note the arguments from Democrats — that they repeatedly helped with the debt limit under a GOP president, that much current debt was racked up then — but without faithfully rendering the lopsided good faith-bad-faith imbalance truly on display here. Democratic fulminations of outrage are met with savvy coverage that paints this situation as a dilemma for them while marveling at how politically shrewd McConnell’s tactics are.

No more. Instead, Democrats’ North Star should be as follows: To position themselves as the ones acting decisively in procedural terms for the good of country — which they know entails disarming such tactics to avert future crises — while relegating Republicans to the role of howling with ineffectual outrage.