By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion
It’s time: Congressional Democrats need to get the ball rolling on ending the risk of defaulting on the nation’s debt. If they don’t tackle this before the current term ends, we run the risk that a Republican House majority will be irresponsible enough to allow a default to happen. That’s why the Democrats should seize the opportunity during the lame-duck period after the Nov. 8 midterms to eliminate the borrowing cap entirely.
The reason this is so pressing is that the United States has a law limiting the amount of debt the government can borrow. Since the federal government almost always runs a deficit, the total amount of debt is almost always increasing, which means that periodically the limit must be raised as well. But because the government sets the limit, and the government also decides how much to borrow, the law is entirely superfluous; it’s as if credit card limits were set by the cardholder and not the card issuer.
The problem is that raising the limit takes an act of Congress, and many in Congress fear that voters will punish them based on a mistaken belief that it’s a vote to increase the deficit (even though there’s no evidence that voters would do such a thing). But if Congress fails to increase the limit, the U.S. would default, leaving the government unable to pay its bills or fund crucial programs.
Which brings us to the threat: the possibility of a Republican House majority driven by the most extreme members of the party. We don’t know exactly what would happen if Republicans win a majority in November. But it does seem clear that the percentage of radicals — those who oppose compromise on principle and increasingly reject democratic norms and values — keeps growing within the House Republican conference and that those who are radicals are becoming more extreme.
How this will play out will depend on the size of the Republican majority (assuming there is one, which appears highly likely but not quite as certain as it did a few months ago) and how GOP leaders manage things. It’s possible that they will be surprisingly disciplined, focused on damaging President Biden ahead of the 2024 election but avoiding actions that could make them look bad. It’s also possible they will turn on each other, perhaps even failing to elect a speaker and organize the House for some time, or splintering so badly that they wind up losing their majority to some sort of coalition of Democrats and dissident Republicans. The majority in the Senate will matter, too, although radicals appear to have less influence there than in the House. And when it comes to must-pass items such as the debt limit it only takes one chamber to cause a problem.
Greg Sargent, writing in The Washington Post, has a good rundown on some of the parade of horrors a radical Republican House could unleash, from bogus impeachments to government shutdowns. Some of these would likely be terribly unpopular (I can’t imagine very many voters would welcome a government shutdown aimed at stopping the Department of Justice from investigating former president Donald Trump). Other steps Republicans could take range from nuisances to huge distractions. Seeking impeachments of Biden or other administration officials wouldn’t produce convictions — and might even be immediately dismissed by the Senate — but they would certainly tie up the administration’s time.
Yet the move that would do the most damage to the nation, and to Democratic chances in 2024, is also the one that Democrats could solve right now. A debt limit crisis could be put off — for a year, for two years, or permanently — if Congress acts before the year ends. In fact, as the New York Times reported Thursday, at least some Republicans would prefer that the debt limit be raised now so that their party wouldn’t have to deal with it if they have majorities in both the House and the Senate. After all, plenty of radical Republicans have pledged to never vote for a debt limit increase, regardless of the consequences. That means the Republican leadership could wind up needing to strike a cross-party alliance that would give Democrats a fair amount of leverage.
Unfortunately, Senate Republicans who want to see the debt limit jettisoned are surely in the “vote no, hope yes” camp. They not only wouldn’t vote for a debt limit increase due to political considerations but would also join a filibuster to block a vote to raise the limit. That means either another convoluted procedural compromise like the one that yielded only a short-term fix last year, or that Democrats will have to use reconciliation, the budget procedure that allows them to act with only a simple majority in the Senate. They should choose the latter. And this time, they should permanently put an end to the threat of default by eliminating the debt limit for good.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.