The basics are simple: the United States will reach the statutory debt ceiling, last raised earlier this year, in 2023 unless Congress acts to increase it. The obvious move for Democrats is to eliminate the limit altogether in the next lame session, when Democrats still have majorities in both houses of Congress and can use the reconciliation process to do so with simple majorities. (1) So far, however, there is no indication that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer intend to do so.
There are several important points here.
First of all, this is not a normal blackmail situation. It is a threat of putting the US government in default and thereby destroying the economy, which presumably neither side wants. This usually means the blackmailer doesn’t have a lot of clout. (Yes, an even more extreme version of this worked for Sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles, but that was probably because of shock value, not actual bargaining power.)
Second, as in 2013, there is a feeling that radical Republicans believe in the principle of hostage taking. This evil principle, more than any specific request, is the source of the potential disaster. In 2013, the combined government shutdown and debt ceiling showdown began as an attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but Republicans struggled once it became clear they weren’t. would not get a repeal.
Third, confrontational radicals refuse to learn from history. Republicans drove the government shutdowns from 1995-96, 2013 and 2018-19, and each time polls showed them paying for it in terms of public opinion. Moreover, each time, they failed to achieve their substantive goals.(2) Or, at least, they failed to change public policies. If their goal was to show that they were ready to disrupt the nation…well, they succeeded.
The parties are coalitions and Republican-aligned business interests do not want to participate in a debt limit crisis. And yet they seem unwilling to retaliate 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 are not forcing confrontations over the debt ceiling. Nor are mainstream business-friendly Republicans forcing them. They are being forced by radical Republicans such as Sen. Ted Cruz, a leader in the 2013 struggle, and dozens of House Republicans. And even that wouldn’t be a problem if the rest of the group was willing to stand up to them.
It’s not fair that Democrats have to spend time protecting the nation from what, as Greg Sargent notes, Republicans say they will do if they win power. But that’s where we are.
There appears to be no plan to prevent a debt limitation debacle, and legislation to prevent a future Republican president from destroying the civil service also appears uncertain. At least, the draft law establishing the law on the electoral count is on the way to becoming law. Democrats should be working hard on all three of these issues right now.
For weekend reading, here are some of the best recent articles from political scientists:
• Natalie Jackson on what little we know about Hispanic voters.
• Molly Reynolds on the policy of stopping confrontations.
• Dan Drezner on Maggie Haberman and Access Journalism.
• Clare Brock at Monkey Cage on Hunger in the United States.
• 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 the number of women running for office.
• Robert Farley on M*A*S*H and the evolution of US-military relations.
(1) Greg Sargent has more details on the Democrats’ options. They probably can’t repeal the debt limit entirely using reconciliation, but maybe they can peg it into a formula so it’s never reached, and they could certainly increase it to an absurd number – l either would effectively be a repeal.
(2) It was the same in 2018, when the Democrats approached to force an extended government shutdown. They quickly backed off.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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