On the Politics of the Debt Ceiling

Since President Joe Biden’s inauguration, I have been disinclined to write much about politics, being painfully cognizant that there will be ample opportunity to expound in that theater beginning, unfortunately, in January and continuing right through to the next presidential inauguration.  (While I recently noted in these pages that a sizeable minority of our citizens is clearly willing to ignore truth, to cast aside democratic norms, and to establish an American Apartheid, I consider this a substantive domestic threat, no longer a political issue.)  Even so, I indulge here:  the President’s and Congressional Democrats’ recent thrashings, apparently attempting to get significant Republican support to raise the debt ceiling, are a waste of time and energy.

Put aside the catastrophic effect on our and the world’s economy that a U.S. default would cause – a loss of credibility from which, in my view, we would never fully recover.  (Today, our defensive strength is our military apparatus; but our offensive strength is our economic power — our ability to assert our will across global financial systems).  Put aside the fact that all who care are aware that we need to raise the debt ceiling to pay for obligations already incurred through measures supported by members of both parties.  Put aside the fact that the debt ceiling has been raised numerous times under presidents of both parties, generally on a bipartisan basis.  Even put aside that we shouldn’t have a law setting a debt ceiling:  the Constitution doesn’t call for one; most advanced nations reportedly don’t have one; and politicians of both parties have long since given up any real concern about escalating deficits.  We are where we are.

The Democrats should devote all of their efforts to raising the debt ceiling via their own means — through the Senate reconciliation process, a carve-out to the Senate’s filibuster rules, or by whatever other legislative maneuver best serves the purpose. As my mother would say, it is as plain as the nose on your face:  The Republicans have no good faith.  They have no interest in doing the responsible thing if they believe that acting irresponsibly will gain them political advantage.  If the President and Congressional Democrats can’t see that by now, the only positive point one can still make about them is that they remain a better alternative than President Trump and a Senator Mitch McConnell-led Congress — the faintest, most backhanded praise imaginable.

The good news for Democrats:  Independents and sensible Republican citizens offended by their nominal party’s reactionary spasms — the groups that decide elections in swing jurisdictions, and ultimately, the balance of power in our country – understand that the debt ceiling needs to be raised.  Democrats can easily cast aside any Republican harrumphing; Republican claims will have no legs with pivotal voter segments.  On the other hand, if through legislative hand-wringing the Democrats, despite their control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, do allow a default to occur, the decisive voting blocs will hold them responsible for the default and the ensuing consequences – in my view, justifiably.

One of former President Ronald Reagan’s favorite stories was about a psychologist who tried to cure a patient’s undue optimism by leading him to a room filled with horse manure.  The President would relate that instead of being dismayed, the optimist jumped right into the manure pile and started digging.  When the psychologist asked the optimist what he was doing, Mr. Reagan, grinning, would deliver the optimist’s reply:  “There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere.”

Mr. President, Madam Speaker, and Mr. Senate Majority Leader:  when it comes to the overwhelming majority of Congressional Republicans on the vast majority of issues facing this country, there is no pony.  In this case, doing what the Republicans decry won’t even have meaningful political repercussions.  Hopefully, you have already started the motions to take whatever legislative steps are necessary to raise the debt ceiling. 

Get it done.

[Late note:  in fairness to Democrats, since this was scheduled to run, there are reports indicating that they understand their need to act unilaterally to raise the debt ceiling, and are considering a carve-out to the Senate filibuster rules to achieve the goal.  If that is indeed the route they take, Republicans may find that their intransigence on this easy debt ceiling issue was too smart by half; once Democrats cross the threshold of tinkering with filibuster carve-outs, it might become easier for those Democratic Senators, heretofore reluctant to change Senate rules, to abide a carve-out to the filibuster to allow the passage of laws protecting the integrity of federal elections.]

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