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A debt ceiling crisis isn’t McCarthy’s only option to cut spending

Kevin McCarthy is pushing a debt ceiling hostage crisis to cut spending, but there’s an alternative approach he could try: the U.S. legislative process.


To hear House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tell it, he’s helping launch a debt ceiling crisis, but only for sensible reasons. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday:

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) said Sunday he would seek to negotiate with President Biden over raising the federal debt ceiling but renewed his calls for cuts in spending, days after the Treasury Department said the government may not be able to pay its bills by early summer. “Let’s sit down together. Let’s look at the places that we can change our behavior,” Mr. McCarthy said in an interview on Fox News. “Why would we sit back and be so arrogant to say, ‘No, there’s no waste in government?’”

The California Republican added yesterday that, as far as he’s concerned, a clean debt ceiling increase is “totally off the table”: He fully expects the Democratic-led Senate and the Democratic White House to pay some kind of yet-to-be-determined ransom. If not, McCarthy and his members will deliberately cause an economic catastrophe and impose new hardships on American families on purpose.

At this point, it’s unclear precisely what the GOP’s ransom note will include, and McCarthy hasn’t shared any details. That said, Politico reported yesterday that the new House speaker assured his members that the chamber “wouldn’t move to lift the debt ceiling unless Congress slashes at least $130 billion in federal spending next fiscal year or addresses broader fiscal reforms that tackle the ballooning debt.”

Why $130 billion? Republicans haven’t said. What would the cuts include? They haven’t said that, either.

For its part, the Biden White House has insisted that there will be no negotiations: Congress simply needs to do its job and pay the nation’s bills. Period. Full stop.

A variety of GOP officials, from assorted factions within the party, have responded that the president’s line is unacceptable: They’re holding a gun to the nation’s economy, and they expect Biden to start looking for ways to prevent them from pulling the trigger.

Lost amid the threats and posturing is a core detail that Republicans have been reluctant to acknowledge: To pursue their goals of spending cuts, they don’t need to create a debt ceiling crisis. In fact, there’s a perfectly sound alternative approach.

It’s called the United States’ legislative process.

McCarthy and his members could — this might sound outlandish, but bear with me — introduce a bill. The proposed legislation could — get this — include the policy preferences they hope to implement.

In an era in which Republican-imposed crises have become more frequent, it’s easy to forget that we live in a country with existing governing institutions, complete with processes elected officials can use to pursue their goals.

It's shocking, I know, but it's true.

GOP House members want to cut $130 billion in spending? They’re in luck: They’ve already been elected to Congress. This affords them the opportunity to identify what spending they believe should be cut, and then unveil a bill to cut that spending.

Indeed, it’s Civics 101: Elected officials in one chamber come up with an idea, write a bill, and initiate a debate. They then try to pass the bill. If it clears one chamber, it then moves to the other for further consideration. If it passes the other chamber, the bill then goes to the White House for additional scrutiny.

That’s what we do in the United States. The process has evolved a bit over time, but it’s been in place for more than two centuries, and it’s occasionally produced some amazing results.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but what McCarthy and House Republicans want to do is wholly at odds with the American tradition: They want to pursue their goals, not through the country’s existing legislative process, but through extortion: Give them what they want or the country gets it.

McCarthy said on Sunday that there’s “waste in government.” Maybe so. But in this country, elected lawmakers are supposed to identify the wasteful spending and introduce legislation to put things right. What’s stopping the speaker and his members from doing that now?


Republicans are likely to respond that if they tried to use their own country’s legislative system, it wouldn’t work: Democrats probably wouldn't agree with their proposed spending cuts.

But that’s not much of an argument. For one thing, it’s a bit like listening to a hostage taker say, “I had to take hostages, otherwise people wouldn’t give me their money."

For another, in our political system, if the rival party disagrees with you, you have the option of trying to sway the public and trying to make gains in the next election cycle. You’re not supposed to have the option of threatening the country’s wellbeing unless the rival party succumbs to your demands.

Finally, if Democrats were to give in this year and pay the ransom Republicans are seeking, it would help establish a new precedent: Members of Congress wouldn’t have to rely solely on the United States’ existing policymaking process anymore. They could simply throw caution to the wind, pursue their goals through extortion schemes, and hope for the best.

Is that the future McCarthy is eager to create? Are Republicans prepared to start paying Democrats a ransom the next time the tables are turned?

As the nation hits the debt ceiling tomorrow, are they at least prepared to consider unveiling a bill?