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House GOP ‘moderate’ tries to defend his party’s extortion scheme

One of Congress' more pragmatic Republican members argued the GOP is entitled to a debt ceiling crisis. That’s misguided in ways he ought to understand.

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About a week ago, Republican Rep. Scott Perry sat down with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos and expressed confusion about the White House’s line on the debt ceiling. “I don’t know why President Biden says he’s not going to negotiate,” the chair of the far-right House Freedom Caucus said.

Exactly seven days later, Republican Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska — known as a far more pragmatic lawmaker than his Freedom Caucus colleague — appeared on the same Sunday show and said largely the same thing. Guest host Jonathan Karl asked Bacon whether the risk of default is “real,” given his party’s debt ceiling demands. The congressman responded:

“Well, I think it is a real threat that both sides have to take serious. You know, the Republicans were largely elected to get control of reckless spending. That’s the mission that their voters have given them. So, when President Biden says he’s going to refuse to negotiate with Republicans on any concessions, I don’t think that’s right.”

The Nebraska Republican — who, again, has a reputation as a relative moderate, at least by contemporary GOP standards — added that the president “has to negotiate” and “can’t say he refuses to negotiate.” Dismissing the White House’s line, Bacon went on to say such a position is “a nonstarter” because Republicans have been given a “mission” by voters to cut spending.

“You know, James Madison put together a Constitution and said factions have to work together to find areas of consensus,” he concluded. “That’s how he designed the system with bicameral, separations of power. And when parties say, ‘My way or the highway,’ it just does not work.”

At face value, I suspect many Americans will see this as a sensible and responsible position. Bacon described a scenario in which one party wants one thing, the other party wants something else, and since both have power and authority, it’s up to fair-minded officials from both sides to sit down, negotiate in good faith, and work out a solution. It’s how our Madisonian system is supposed to function.

The problem is, Bacon’s description is spectacularly wrong for reasons he really ought to understand.

If Democrats and Republicans needed to find a solution to a legislative challenge, and a good-faith compromise could lead to an effective solution, then the model the congressman described would make a lot of sense.

But that’s not what GOP leaders are currently proposing. Rather, they hope to abandon the American legislative model — the one shaped in part by Madison — and instead get their way by way of a hostage crisis in which Republicans are demanding that Democrats pay a ransom. Failure to comply, GOP leaders have said, will cause them to start hurting Americans on purpose.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but good-faith talks among officials are literally impossible when one side is holding a gun to the head of the economy during the process.

To hear Bacon tell it, Republicans have an electoral mandate to cut spending. It’s a debatable assertion: GOP candidates underperformed in 2022, and there’s little evidence that the American mainstream is clamoring for Congress to slash public investments.

But let’s be generous. Let’s concede the point and say that Republicans really were elected specifically because voters far and wide desperately want to see dramatic spending cuts. Even if we work from such an assumption, it’s simply not credible to suggest the American electorate wants a debt ceiling crisis that threatens the stability of the global economy.

I don’t imagine Bacon will see what I’ve written here, but I would ask him to consider a hypothetical scenario from the recent past. It’s early 2019, and a new Democratic majority in the House is getting to work alongside a Republican-led Senate and a Republican White House. House Democratic leaders know that Congress will soon have to raise the debt ceiling, which gets them thinking about their priorities — and their demands.

Then imagine House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her team decide that they’ll deliberately crash the economy unless Republicans agree to dramatically expand Affordable Care Act benefits.

Republicans would almost certainly balk in response to the Democratic extortion plot. At that point in our hypothetical scenario, a relatively moderate House Democrat, who expects his party to be reasonable and responsible, appears on national television and defends the approach. “I think it is a real threat that both sides have to take seriously,” the Democratic moderate explains with great earnestness. “You know, Democrats were largely elected on their commitment to health care benefits. That’s the mission that their voters have given them.”

That same relatively moderate House Democrat adds soon after, “Donald Trump has to also negotiate. He can’t say he refuses to negotiate. That’s a nonstarter, because the mission we’ve been given is to help Americans with their health security. When parties say, ‘My way or the highway,’ it just does not work.”

Do you think Republicans would respond, “That’s a good point; let’s agree to pay Democrats the ransom, expand Obamacare, and prevent default”? Or is it more likely that Republicans would simply invite the House Democratic majority to try to pass a bill reflecting its priorities?

Bacon, in other words, believes he can defend the indefensible. He’s mistaken. The congressman’s pitch is that Republicans have not only earned the right to pursue dramatic spending cuts, they’ve also earned the right to threaten the stability of the economy and jeopardize the full faith and credit of the United States.

That right does not exist. The House GOP majority has been handed an opportunity to participate in governing; it has not been given an opportunity to threaten American families with deliberate harm.

If the Nebraskan and his colleagues want to introduce legislation to pursue spending cuts, they’re welcome to do so. But to argue that the GOP majority is somehow entitled to a debt ceiling crisis, and the White House is obligated to go along with an extortion plot, is fundamentally wrong.

That way madness lies.