The reason this is so pressing is because 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 almost always increases, which means that the limit must also be increased periodically. 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 are set by the cardholder, not the card issuer.(1)
The problem is that raising the limit requires an act of Congress, and many in Congress fear that voters will punish them based on the mistaken belief that this is a vote to increase the deficit (even if there is no evidence that voters would do such a thing). But if Congress fails to raise the limit, the United States 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 majority in the House led by the party’s most extreme members. We don’t know exactly what would happen if the Republicans won a majority in November. But it seems clear that the percentage of radicals—those who oppose compromise on principle and increasingly reject democratic norms and values—is steadily growing in the House Republican conference and that those who are radicals become more and more extreme.
How that plays out will depend on the size of the Republican majority (assuming there is one, which seems very likely but not as certain as a few months ago) and how the leaders of the GOP run things. They may be surprisingly disciplined, focused on hurting President Joe Biden ahead of the 2024 election, but avoiding actions that might make them look bad. It’s also possible they could turn against each other, perhaps even failing to elect a president and organize the House for a time, or splitting up so badly that they end up losing their majority in the profit from a sort of coalition of Democrats and dissident Republicans.(2) The majority in the Senate will also count, although the Radicals seem to have less influence there than in the House. And when it comes to must-haves like the debt limit, it only takes one room to cause a problem.
Greg Sargent, writing on the Washington Post’s Plum Line blog, has a good look at some of the horrors a radical Republican House could unleash, from bogus impeachments to government shutdowns. Some of them would probably be terribly unpopular (I can’t imagine many voters would welcome a government shutdown to prevent the Justice Department from investigating former President Donald Trump). Other actions Republicans could take range from nuisances to huge distractions. Seeking to impeach Biden or other administration officials would not produce convictions — and might even be immediately thrown out by the Senate — but they would certainly monopolize the administration’s time.
Yet the decision that would do the most damage to the nation and Democratic odds in 2024 is also the one Democrats could resolve right now. A debt ceiling crisis could be postponed — by a year, two years, or permanently — if Congress acts before the end of the year. In fact, as The New York Times reported on Thursday, at least some Republicans would rather the debt limit be raised now so their party doesn’t have to deal with it if they have majorities at once. in the House and the Senate. After all, many radical Republicans have pledged never to vote for an increase in the debt ceiling, regardless of the consequences. That means the Republican leadership may end up needing to strike a cross-party alliance that gives Democrats some good clout.
Unfortunately, Senate Republicans who want to see the debt limit dropped are surely in the “vote no, hope you will” camp. Not only would they not vote for an increase in the debt ceiling due to political considerations, but they would also join in a filibuster to block a vote to increase the ceiling. That means either another convoluted procedural compromise like the one that yielded only a short-term solution last year, or Democrats will have to resort to 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 end the threat of default by permanently removing the debt ceiling.(3)
For weekend reading, here are some of the best recent articles from political scientists:
• Natalie Jackson has a great introduction to reading the midterm polls.
• David A. Hopkins at Bloomberg Opinion on Dr. Fauci and partisanship.
• Jack Santucci on the Alaska system.
• Mallory E. SoRelle and Serena Laws at Monkey Cage on details of Biden’s student loan plan.
• Matt Glassman on student loans and working around Congress.
• Robert Farley on Biden’s speech defending democracy.
• Josh Putnam on changes to Democratic presidential nominating rules.
(1) Using analogies between personal finance and public debt is generally a mistake, but it is useful in this particular case.
(2) The latter should be highly unlikely given the successful purge of moderate conservatives and most Republicans who opposed Donald Trump’s bid to void the 2020 election, but there will always be at least a few Republicans in the next Congress who will be uncomfortable with the most extreme radicals in the conference.
(3) Technically, the Conciliation Rules would prevent a complete repeal of the Debt Limitation Act. However, Senate experts believe it would be acceptable to set the limit at a ridiculously high number. I still support raising the limit to 1787 to the 1787th power, a very large number indeed which will not be reached for many centuries, and calling it the Constitutional Option.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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