As we watch the unfolding fiasco of the debt ceiling standoff, now, in fact, a negotiation and a source of gnashing of teeth down through the ages, there’s an additional point and question I wanted to address. Over recent days I’ve had a large volume of emails asking pretty close to the same question: “Josh, can you remind me why the Democrats made the decision not to raise the debt ceiling at the end of the last Congress? I can’t understand why they decided not to do it when they had the chance.”
First, the tl;dr version: That’s not what happened.
Let me preface all this by saying I take a backseat to no one in opposition to the whole clearly anachronistic and unconstitutional debt limit regime. I was banging the drums about the absolute need for the Democrats to do just this — raise the debt limit during the lame duck session last fall and winter — at the time. In fact, there’s a video I’m about to link where I talked to a couple true experts about this last fall.
But pretending they decided not to is just false.
There are essentially three overlapping reasons this didn’t and basically wasn’t ever going to happen.
The first is the simplest. It required all 50 Democratic senators to do, and Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin were just never going to go along with that. That alone basically answers your question. It’s like saying the Democrats decided not to abolish the filibuster in the last Congress. That’s true if you imagine there’s a collective Senate Democrat mind that makes decision to do one thing and not another. In practice, that’s not how anything works.
The second and third reasons are ones Adam Jentleson expands on in this clip from a virtual event on the topic we hosted last fall.
As Adam explains, it wasn’t just Manchin and Sinema. There were likely a small handful of Democratic senators who might not like parliamentary terrorism but still thought a debt limit negotiation could be a good moment for reining in spending, “dealing with entitlements,” and so on. There’s a strong pull of ego here as well. You want to be part of a “grand bargain” on budgeting and fiscal probity. We’ve already met two of the handful: Manchin and Sinema. There are perhaps one or two or maybe even three more? Who? Maybe someone like Mark Warner, senator from Virginia. I don’t think Jentleson had two or three specific people in mind. Just a general feel for the institution and its members. Back in the Bush years there were at least a dozen Democratic senators in this category. There are still a few there. Maybe they’re not committed enough to refuse to pass a debt limit raise outright. But it’s enough to slow things down considerably.
The final point is one of collective action, or more specifically SenateBrain. There’s no “Senate Democrats.” There’s 50-odd people, some of whom are very good, many of whom are okay as far as it goes but not looking to draw a lot of attention to themselves on something that might go south. Am I really going to make a stink to fix something that won’t get to a crisis point until six months or a year from now? If you’re a senator and you asked that rhetorical question, you suck. But if you’re a reader, it’s worth understanding the mentality.
Again, watch the video above. Jentleson, from long experience, explains the dynamic pretty clearly.
Mitch McConnell is well within his rights to say: Don’t come to me for help now. You guys could have dealt with this when you were in control. But in a tied Senate, that’s not how things work.
I’ll say it again, I was pleading, begging, yelling that they should do this last fall. Even if the chance of success was super low the consequences were so great, it was important to try. But if you think Senate Democrats just decided not to, you’re BSing yourself. They didn’t have the votes. They still should have have made a run at it because then we wouldn’t be in this asinine position. But mainly they didn’t do it because they didn’t have the votes to do it.