Imagine, for a moment, that Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll were to go on ESPN with an unusual announcement about Sunday’s Super Bowl. He says his team will refuse to kick off to the Broncos unless the Broncos spot them a field goal in exchange.
“We’re not just going to give the other team the ball unless we get something significant in return,” imagine Carroll declaring. “It would be irresponsible for us to just give in to their request for the ball without getting at least three points attached to it.” Carroll says that unless the condition is met, the Seahawks aren’t even going to bother playing the game. They insist that if the Broncos won’t sit down and negotiate, it’ll be their own fault if the Super Bowl gets canceled.
How would sportswriters across the country respond? They’d probably say something like this: “That’s just silly. That’s not how the game works, and you know it. Either you’re being stupid here, or you think we’re stupid enough to let you get away with this.” They wouldn’t be afraid to take sides — Carroll would come in for a lot of much-deserved criticism for putting the Super Bowl in jeopardy and insulting the fans’ intelligence. Every time Carroll talked about this demand, the sports press wouldn’t hesitate to note the absurdity of his position.
Shouldn’t the political press weigh in when someone makes an equally absurd demand about something more substantive than a football game?
On Sunday, Sen. Mitch McConnell did exactly that.
What I’m saying is we ought to attach something significant for the country to [President Obama’s] request to increase the debt ceiling…it’s irresponsible not to use the discussion — the request of the President to raise the debt ceiling — to try to accomplish something for the country.
That’s right: once again, the Senate minority leader insisted congressional Republicans have to use the debt ceiling to extract concession. McConnell’s brilliance is just how much dishonesty he can pack into so few words.
At the heart of McConnell’s audacious bull is his reference to “the request of the President to raise the debt ceiling,” in order to give the impression that a debt ceiling increase is a favor to President Obama. It’s not and he knows it.
This is actually pretty simple. Congress sets revenue levels. Congress sets spending levels. That’s how the system works, as laid out in the Constitution.
The Obama administration has to spend at the levels Congress sets. Obama can’t just decide to spend more or less or tax more or less. The one quirk is that the Treasury Department technically has to get authorization from Congress to borrow if the spending levels Congress has set are above the revenue levels Congress has set. “The president’s request” to raise the debt ceiling is essentially permission to do what Congress — including McConnell — has already legally and Constitutionally required the president to do.
McConnell is saying it would be “irresponsible” to allow the President to do what Congress already mandated that he do.
What’s more, the failure to raise the debt ceiling really would be a disaster for the economy. Even the temporary suggestion that it might not happen was a huge blow in 2011. Raising the debt ceiling already is “something significant for the country” — it prevents default. What do Republicans “get” if they raise the debt ceiling? The same thing everyone does: they get a functioning government and a functioning economy. To insist you need a “concession” in exchange for raising the debt ceiling suggests you prefer the alternative.
There are certainly a few members of Congress dim enough to not understand how this works. McConnell isn’t one of them. His remarks are every bit as ridiculous as Pete Carroll’s hypothetical refusal to “give” the Broncos a kickoff, and his strategy only works if what he says gets reported at face value, rather than as nonsense. He knows the rules of the game; he’s just hoping the rest of us don’t.
Mitch McConnell thinks we’re stupid enough to let him get away with this. Political reporters shouldn’t help him out.
Seth D. Michaels is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He’s on Twitter as@sethdmichaels.