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In debt ceiling fight, Republicans need to brush up on the basics

As Republicans move forward with a debt ceiling crisis, do they fully understand what the debt ceiling is? There’s some evidence that the answer is no.

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On “Meet the Press” over the weekend, Republican Rep. Nancy Mace, who’s sometimes described as a relative Republican “moderate,” blamed “both parties” for the fact that the United States has a massive national debt. The South Carolinian added that she believes “now is the best time” to have a “conversation” about balancing the budget — a goal the GOP only tends to prioritize during Democratic presidencies.

Soon after, NBC’s Chuck Todd asked the right question: Why use the debt ceiling to pursue these goals when Congress already has a budget process? Mace’s response went on for a while, but this is what stood out for me:

“There is a lot of hysteria around shutting down the government. But, you know, this happened under the previous administration. The government was shut down for 35 days. There was a stalemate. But people still got paid. Accounts still got filled up. And the sky didn’t fall. I would like to see the president — and so far, he has said he’s unwilling to negotiate with Republicans. That is not how to unify our country. We are very divided right now. We have $31 trillion of debt. The responsible thing to do would be to get to the table with Republicans and negotiate a way. How do we prioritize spending? How do we balance the budget? We’re not even asking to do it one year like Bill Clinton did it. Can we do it over ten years, which would be, you know, consensus and be compromised? That’s a reasonable conversation to have.”

To be sure, there’s a lot wrong with this answer, starting with the fact that the congresswoman didn’t get around to answering Todd’s question. If Mace and her GOP colleagues want to have a debate over spending and responsible budgeting, that’s a perfectly defensible goal. But Republicans are threatening to harm Americans on purpose unless Democrats meet their demands, and if Mace has a justification for imposing such an extortion crisis on the nation, she failed to share it.

But let’s also not brush past the substantive disconnect between the question and the answer: The “Meet the Press” host asked about the debt ceiling, and the Republican answered by arguing that government shutdowns aren’t that important.

This came a few weeks after Rep. Ralph Norman, another South Carolina Republican, told reporters about one of his principal concerns regarding McCarthy’s bid for speaker. “Is he willing to shut the government down rather than raise the debt ceiling?” Norman asked. “That’s a nonnegotiable item.”

In case this isn’t obvious, let’s make it plain: The debt ceiling has nothing to do with government shutdowns. As we’ve discussed, the latter relates to funding the operations of the federal government; the former relates to the nation’s borrowing authority and ability to avoid defaulting on our obligations.

Some GOP lawmakers appear to be under the impression that if they fail to raise the debt ceiling, the government would shut down. That’s not even close to being correct: If Republicans deliberately cause the United States to default on its obligations, the result would be an economic catastrophe vastly more serious than any temporary shutdown to federal operations.

It raises a question the House majority probably needs to answer fairly soon: As Republicans move forward with a debt ceiling crisis, do they fully understand what the debt ceiling is? Because there’s some evidence to suggest that the answer is no.

Most of the current House GOP conference wasn’t yet in office when the party launched related crises in the Obama era. It’s not unreasonable to think the current crop of Republican lawmakers would benefit from some kind of tutorial reviewing the basics, since some of them seem tragically confused about details they really ought to know.