‘Let’s use the debt limit, yes, as leverage’

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Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)
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Americans have seen quite a few congressionally imposed crises in recent months, from the so-called “fiscal cliff,” to the sequestration cuts that are already hurting the country as planned, to threats of government shutdowns. But there’s still one more storm on the horizon, which happens to be the easiest one to deal with and the one that has the potential to do the most damage.

I’m referring to the next debt-ceiling increase – or for those who watch The Rachel Maddow Show closely, Congressional Storm Gertrude.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) sat down with Politico this week and said, “Let’s use the debt limit, yes, as leverage.” As a practical matter, what he meant was, congressional Republicans should threaten to hurt Americans on purpose unless President Obama agrees to slash public investments. Because the White House won’t want such a catastrophe, Republicans will have “leverage” that Portman wants to see his party “use.”

The Ohio Republican isn’t the only one thinking this way.

House leaders are planning to bring a debt ceiling “prioritization” bill to the House floor before the end of April, bringing the divisive issue to the forefront ahead of the government hitting the ceiling sometime this summer.

The legislation tries to mitigate the damage of the government reaching the debt limit in the event that negotiations to raise it fail. But Democrats have panned the idea, meaning it is unlikely to be taken up by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

The bill, introduced by Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of California, says the government must pay the interest and principal of its debts with incoming tax revenue before any other obligations.

“It removes default as an option,” said Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.

Well, not exactly. “Default” is a tricky thing, a fact House Republicans may not fully appreciate.

In effect, here’s what this proposal is all about: Republicans are preparing to hold the debt ceiling hostage – again – and are preparing for what happens if Democrats fail to pay the ransom and GOP lawmakers are forced to shoot the hostage.

At that point, because Congress will have blocked the United States’ ability to borrow the funds necessary to meet our legal obligations, these House Republicans are looking to prioritize who’ll get paid first after the debt ceiling is breached. Under the right-wing vision, the nation will start by focusing on our debt payments, paying them in full, and then using whatever money is left over to pay for literally everything else.

And while that might prevent part of a potential default, it would leave open the possibility of another – the United States has passed laws obligating the government to pay for plenty of other things, and we’d almost certainly have to default on those obligations unless the debt ceiling is raised as it always has been.

The fact that House Republicans find this confusing is not at all reassuring.

But even if we put that aside, the fact that this proposal exists at all is a little insane, since it intends to prepare for congressional Republicans to undermine the full faith and credit of the United States, on purpose, in just a few months, for the first time in American history. In other words, while lawmakers should be working on a plan to avert an easily avoidable crisis, House Republicans have decided to spend time working on a plan on what the government should do when the easily avoidable crisis hits.

This is unbelievably dangerous, and so blisteringly stupid that it’s almost hard to believe a group of American elected officials would be willing to think this way. And yet, here we are.

What remains unclear, however, is how much of the bluster and chest-thumping is sincere. Congressional Republicans have been caught bluffing on this issue before, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) conceded just last month, “I’m not going to risk the full faith and credit of the federal government.”

If that’s true, the House GOP’s antics are full of sound and fury signifying nothing. If Boehner wasn’t telling the truth, Americans have cause for alarm, since it’s their economy and world standing Republicans are threatening to deliberately destroy.

Rob Portman, Debt, Debt Ceiling and Debt Limit

'Let's use the debt limit, yes, as leverage'

Updated