Comment: If Republicans want debt fight, Biden shouldn’t wait

He should tell the Treasury secretary not to put off the default date and call Republicans’ bluff.

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

When it comes to the debt ceiling, President Biden is right not to negotiate with House Republicans, whose strategy is to take hostages first and decide the ransom later. But their confusion also demonstrates why his decision doesn’t go far enough.

What Biden needs to do — now, not the day before the U.S. is expected to default — is take action. Specifically, he should instruct Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to resume normal payments. Yellen has already notified Congress that the government has been taking extraordinary measures to prevent a breach of the debt limit, such as altering payments to government-run funds for retirees, and that she can continue to do so for several months.

If Biden is not willing to order the Treasury to return to business as usual, he should make it very clear to Republicans that the only choices are a debt-limit increase or a government default.

This strategy comes with risks, to put it mildly. But the dilemma for Biden is that it’s impossible to negotiate with someone who doesn’t know what they want. And Republicans have no idea what they want.

At first it was major reductions in entitlement spending, but apparently they’ve decided not to ask for any changes in Social Security and Medicare (even rejecting West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s idea for a commission to consider entitlements reform). They could still ask for reductions in annual spending bills, but they hardly need a debt limit crisis for that; all they need to do is to pass spending bills at the levels they want, and then fight with the Senate over them. The sense that they’re flailing wasn’t helped when Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, said that he intends to use the debt limit to force passage of his border-security bill; the same bill that does not appear to have the votes in the Republican-majority House.

As a group, Republicans are hopelessly confused about their demands. And it’s impractical, not to mention unwise, for Biden to negotiate with each individual Republican; and, if he starts down that road, perhaps some Democrats as well.

Still, it’s one thing to take a hard line about negotiations. It’s quite another to see a train wreck coming and do nothing. And make no mistake: House Republicans may not know what they want, but they’re perfectly capable of plunging the nation into a financial crisis to get it.

After all, inaction is always the easiest course for Congress. Part of the danger here is complacency. As long as everyone thinks that this will all work out, because it always does, there’s no reason for House Republicans to relent.

So House Democrats should make it clear that a discharge petition is unlikely to succeed. And Biden should issue a presidential statement that explains in exacting detail why none of the methods people have proposed are feasible.

Unless, of course, Biden thinks that one of them is; in which case he’s being irresponsible by waiting. If Biden believes that there are legitimate methods of avoiding or eliminating the debt limit, then those methods are mandatory for him, not optional. After all, the spending bills and payments that past Congresses have approved and previous presidents have signed are also the law of the land, and Biden is obligated to take care that the laws are faithfully executed.

Alternatively, if Biden believes that the debt limit is itself unconstitutional, then he can also remove uncertainty by saying so and acting on it. If there is to be a legal fight, better to have it now, while emergency options for Treasury are still available, than to wait until June or later. Let the courts decide before the markets panic, not after.

Above all, what Biden needs to do is act. Yes, he’ll be accused of presidential overreach, but better now than later. And whatever the downsides, it’s still less risky than simply hoping House Republicans act responsibly.

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.

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