Pelosi’s prudent promise

Pelosi's prudent promise
Pelosi's prudent promise
Associated Press

House Republicans, despite winning 1.4 million fewer votes in the last election, are nevertheless in the majority, and feel justified in holding the debt ceiling hostage until their ridiculous demands are met. But what happens if, in the near future, there’s a Democratic House majority and a Republican White House?

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was Speaker once and may yet become Speaker again, fielded an interesting question on this yesterday.

TPM asked her during a Capitol Hill press availability if she would categorically rule out threatening default by taking the debt limit hostage, as Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is doing now.

“Yes, I would be willing to say, don’t mess with the debt limit. Don’t mess with the debt limit,” Pelosi said. “Whatever luxury you want to be afforded to make your point, get attention – that’s a luxury we can’t afford. So yes, I would say yes to that question.”

I imagine there are Republicans who heard this and thought to themselves, “Sure, that’s easy for Pelosi to say now, but if the roles were really reversed, she might try the same strategy. It’s easy to make this promise when it’s purely hypothetical.”

But therein lies the point: it’s not hypothetical at all and we don’t have to struggle to guess whether Pelosi’s promise has merit.

During the last two years of the Bush/Cheney era, Pelosi was Speaker of the House, and during that time, the debt ceiling needed to be raised three times (it was raised a total of seven times during Bush’s two terms). In theory, Pelosi had an opportunity to use the debt ceiling as “leverage” to make extravagant demands – about the war in Iraq, about health care, about taxes, about anything.

But she didn’t. Neither House nor Senate Democrats were willing to hold the debt ceiling hostage, even though there was a Republican president. They did their duty and refrained from making this dangerous threat.

It’s not an academic exercise about a hypothetical scenario – we know what would happen if the roles were reversed because, just five years ago, the roles were reversed and Democrats had the good sense not to rely on extortion politics to get their way.

Indeed, we can go much further, because this doesn’t just apply to Pelosi.

Between 1968 and 1992, there was a Republican president for all but four years. Over that same period, there was a Democratic House majority literally the entire time. In how many instances did these large Democratic majorities insist that the Republican administrations meet their demands before a debt-ceiling increase could advance? Zero. It simply never happened.

This was not, by the way, a time of bipartisan Kumbaya in the nation’s capital. There were many bitter, partisan fights. But Democrats understood there were some things elected U.S. officials simply could not do. Threatening the full faith and credit of the United States to get their way, putting the nation’s financial wellbeing in jeopardy until unconditional demands were met, was simply considered beyond the pale.