It’s that time of year again — when raising the debt ceiling, a critical legislative act that staves off full-scale economic catastrophe, becomes a high-stakes game of political chicken.
Republicans hold the dubious honor of being the only party eager to play. Lawmakers from both parties occasionally used the process in the past to make a point or cast a symbolic no vote, but not in a way that would seriously risk letting the country default on its debts.
That is, until 2011, just after Republicans had recaptured the House in the 2010 midterms. Congressional Republicans, many identifying with the Tea Party movement, refused to allow the standard increase in the debt ceiling. They demanded that then-President Barack Obama agree to spending cuts in exchange for their votes. Obama, blindsided by such an abjectly reckless tactic, agreed to negotiations.
The crisis was eventually resolved, but not before major credit agencies actually downgraded the United States’ credit rating. The Republican hostage-taking — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) candidly characterized it as such at the time — dealt a blow to economic recovery after the Great Recession and dinged the United States’ reputation worldwide.
And now, they may try it again.
Republicans have been threatening to pull such a move for months. Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) proposed flirting with an international economic crisis to derail the Biden administration’s agenda back in April. Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) told reporters last month that some in his caucus are considering voting against raising the debt ceiling.
McConnell, in a transparent bid to sink Democrats’ reconciliation package, said that no Republicans will vote to raise the debt ceiling supposedly out of disgust at the wave of new spending in the legislation, which only has Democratic support. So Democrats, McConnell suggested, are going to have to go ahead and do it themselves.
“If they don’t need or want our input, they won’t get our help,” McConnell said Thursday from the Senate floor. “They won’t get our help with the debt limit increase that these reckless plans will require.”
The typical Republican concern about spending curiously only seems to arise when a Democrat occupies the White House — Republicans had no problem raising the debt ceiling multiple times under President Donald Trump without demanding any spending cuts in return.
Even Republicans considered more serious and responsible than the firebrand Tea Partiers of yore are cheerfully promoting McConnell’s strategy.
“I know what they want to do is come later and say ‘oh you’ve got to raise the debt limit, or it’s going to cause our bonds to default and markets to crash and all sorts of terrible things,’ well, that they can avoid entirely, they can avoid all that entirely by taking action during reconciliation,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) told reporters Wednesday.
“Raise the debt limit if that’s what they’re gonna do, but they can do it on their own and saying that we have to do it is threatening to our economy and simply irresponsible,” he added, implicitly acknowledging that asking Republicans to raise the debt limit will allow them to threaten the economy irresponsibly.
“I think the majority has to solve this,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) added. “They control the House and the Senate and the White House and it’s easy for them to deal with if they want to.”
The Republican argument is so extreme as to be almost farcical: you Democrats are irresponsible if you don’t raise the debt ceiling yourselves, because otherwise, we may hold it hostage and ultimately maul both the U.S. and global economy.
Democrats, unwilling to endanger the reconciliation package by giving their moderates a new reason to oppose it, said no.
Instead, they’re reportedly planning to yoke it to a must-pass short-term spending bill in September, necessary to avert a government shutdown. The bill can be filibustered, meaning it will require 60 votes. At least 10 Republicans would have to be responsible enough to help avert economic disaster.
It’s not clear if they will be — but the toll that political maneuver would exact is calamitous of historic proportions, not least while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage wide swaths of the United States and world.
“That would be the epitome of stupidity,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) told reporters Wednesday. “To create a fake crisis at this moment with this much going on in the world and this much going on in this country, coming out of COVID and dealing with the variant, would be the epitome of irresponsibility.”