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In debt-ceiling fight, McConnell makes up new rule 'out of whole cloth'

Mitch McConnell's debt-ceiling plan isn't a budget standoff or a typical fight. It's a genuine national scandal and deserves to be seen as such.

There are all kinds of rules, restrictions and procedural hoops lawmakers have to deal with while trying to pass a bill through Congress. The result is a series of hurdles that make legislating difficult even under the best of political circumstances.

But in recent years, the process has become even more difficult thanks to new, made-up tenets concocted by Republican leaders. For reasons that defied sensible explanation, the GOP created annoyances such as the "Boehner Rule" and the "Hastert Rule." For a while the party even seemed excited about something called the "Biden Rule."

None of these "rules" existed in writing. They also did not have pedigrees on Capitol Hill. But they became convenient partisan tools that Republicans used to justify their preferred tactics, without regard for propriety or institutional norms.

The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appears to have invented yet another rule.

McConnell has declared that Senate Republicans will not vote to increase the Treasury's authority to continue borrowing, which is the same as voting to allow a default. As he has done before, McConnell has essentially created a new rule out of whole cloth to justify his actions.

"Let me make it perfectly clear: The country must never default," the GOP leader said last week. "The debt ceiling will need to be raised. But who does that depends on [which party's lawmakers] the American people elect."

The Post's report added, "Because Democrats control the White House and both branches of Congress, his argument goes, they alone are responsible for safeguarding the government's creditworthiness and preventing a potential economic calamity. No such rule exists, nor has it ever."

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has a new op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, arguing, "The past 17 months have tested our nation's economic strength. We are just now emerging from crisis. We must not plunge ourselves back into an entirely avoidable one."

This is both accurate and persuasive. Oddly enough, it's also a sentiment McConnell and much of his party is willing to endorse, at least in part: Republicans claim they don't want a new economic crisis; they're simply prepared to create one, on purpose, by forcing Democrats to extend the nation's borrowing authority without any GOP votes.

That wouldn't necessarily create an economic catastrophe on its own — there's a Democratic majority in both the House and Senate, so if given the opportunity, Democrats could prevent a disaster without any GOP votes — but Republicans are also vowing to filibuster a debt-ceiling increase. As we discussed last week, it creates a dangerously ridiculous dynamic in which the GOP is pushing three assertions simultaneously:

  1. Congress must raise the debt ceiling.
  2. Democrats must do this on their own.
  3. Republicans won't let Democrats do this on their own.

I realize much of the recent coverage has presented this as some kind of budget standoff. And while there's some truth to that, it's also important to emphasize that this is an incomplete assessment: Congressional Republicans are threatening to hurt Americans on purpose. The GOP is prepared to crash the economy as part of a pointless political gambit.

It's not standoff; it's a scandal. The bare minimum of public service in the United States is having elected officials avoid causing deliberate harm to the people they represent. It's a low bar Republican lawmakers are not prepared to clear.

All of this is unfolding while Democrats try to advance domestic legislation and avoid a government shutdown next week. The Wall Street Journal reported this morning, "House Democrats plan to hold a vote this week on a measure to suspend the debt limit and a short-term measure extending the government's funding beyond its expiration at month's end. Democratic leaders haven't yet said whether the debt-limit suspension would be attached to the spending patch, although aides have indicated that is likely."

Watch this space.