In July, when several far-right lawmakers started pushing a government-shutdown scheme in earnest, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who isn’t exactly a moderate, had the good sense to reject the idea as silly.
“I think it’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of,” Burr said at the time. “Listen, as long as Barack Obama is president, the Affordable Care Act is going to be law.”
I mention this, of course, because the North Carolina Republican’s reasoned, sensible approach to extortion politics has apparently disappeared over the last two months.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who dubbed Cruz’s threat to shut down the government over Obamacare the “dumbest idea” he’d ever heard, said Congress shouldn’t give Obama a debt ceiling increase without attaching strings, and the president “is going to pay some price for it, which is a benefit for the American people.”
“I hope [an Obamacare] delay is either part of the next [continuing resolution] or I hope it’s part of the debt ceiling,” Burr said.
There are a couple of important angles to this. First, if anyone was inclined to give Burr points for being an adult in July, now is the time to kick yourself. What he’s describing is a dangerous extortion scheme in which radicalized lawmakers threaten to hurt the country on purpose unless Americans start losing health care benefits.
The fact that Burr didn’t want to threaten a government shutdown was nice, but the fact that he does want to threaten the full faith and credit of the United States is madness – the severity of a sovereign debt crisis is vastly more serious than a shutdown.
Second, Politico mentioned in passing that the issue here is Congress “giving Obama a debt ceiling increase.” It’s time for the political world to stop thinking this way – raising the statutory debt limit isn’t “giving” the president anything.
Indeed, the political establishment’s understanding of this issue has become more than a little twisted. To see Republicans voting for a debt ceiling increase as some kind of concession is the height of absurdity. For those who rationalize threatening deliberate harm to the nation, and for much of the media, the idea is that we’re witnessing some sort of trade – Democrats get a debt-ceiling increase, Republicans get a laundry list of goodies they can’t pass through the legislative process.
The problem with this is that it’s not sane.
The legislative branch has the power of the purse, and appropriates government spending. When that spending is outpaced by federal receipts, it’s up to the executive branch to borrow the difference. Under a ridiculous quirk in the U.S. system, the executive is only allowed to borrow the difference after Congress, which spent more than it took in, gives it authority to do so.
This is called the debt ceiling. The Obama administration needs to borrow the funds to pay the bills for the stuff Congress already bought. There’s no real reason for the system to work this way – most modern democracies have no use for a statutory debt limit – but for now, this is the messy process we’ve created for ourselves.
The point, of course, is that when Congress raises the debt ceiling, as it must, it’s not doing the White House a favor. It’s not some kind of concession or gesture of goodwill. It’s not increasing the debt or giving Obama a blank check or spending any money. It’s just extending a legal authority to pay the bills lawmakers already racked up. Period. Full stop.
So when it comes to “negotiations,” for Congress to ask the White House, “What do we get for raising the debt limit” is insane because on a substantive level, the question is gibberish.