IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.
Rep. Don Bacon speaks to reporters on his way to a closed-door GOP caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on January 10 in Washington, DC.
Rep. Don Bacon speaks to reporters on his way to a closed-door GOP caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on January 10 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer / Getty Images, file

Why the Republican line on debt ceiling negotiations doesn’t work

One of Congress' more pragmatic Republicans believes Biden is obligated to engage in debt ceiling negotiations. That way madness lies.


There are some disagreements among congressional Republicans about the details of the party’s debt ceiling strategy. Some in the party want to pursue cuts to social-insurance programs such as Social Security and Medicare; others do not. Some want to present a detailed hostage note; others want Democrats to go first with an offer. Some see the Pentagon budget as fair game; others have ruled it out.

But there’s one point on which every Republican faction agrees: President Joe Biden is obligated to negotiate with them as the GOP-imposed crisis moves forward.

When I wrote about this last week, explaining why the White House can’t engage in such negotiations, I tried to bring it to the attention of Republican Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, who has a reputation as one of his party’s more pragmatic members. The congressman responded via Twitter, telling me last week that it’s “not right” for the Democratic president to rule out debt ceiling negotiations.

The Nebraskan — or at least someone speaking on his behalf via social media — added soon after, “Refusing to negotiate across the aisle is extortion.”

In other words, Republicans are threatening American with a deliberate economic catastrophe, and if the White House refuses to engage in talks with those prepared to harm the public on purpose, then, according to Bacon, it’s Biden who’s guilty of “extortion.”

This morning, the four-term congressman followed up with another message directed at me.

“We got elected to tackle reckless spending. The President cannot say he refuses to negotiate and expect bipartisan support. We have divided government and the President needs to come to the table.”

I should acknowledge at the outset that I appreciate the fact that Bacon has engaged in this dialog. It’s also worth emphasizing that were it not for his reputation for pragmatism and levelheadedness, I wouldn’t be so focused on his perspective. When Freedom Caucus radicals demand Biden come to the table, it’s predicable. When Bacon makes the same demand, it stands out as more important.

So, let’s flesh this out a bit — because the full faith and credit of the United States might very well depend on persuading Bacon and some of his colleagues.

I’m mindful of the fact that much of the media and much of the public instinctively values bipartisan negotiations. We’ve all come to appreciate it when fair-minded policymakers of different parties and perspectives sit down, hear each other out, negotiate in good faith, and work toward a compromise solution. It’s how sensible and responsible officials are supposed to conduct themselves in a mature political system.

Does that mean the president has a responsibility to meet GOP lawmakers at the negotiating table in order to work out a deal? Actually, no, it does not.

1. Debt ceiling crises aren’t normal governing. In the United States, elected officials with policy goals rely on the American legislative system to pursue their priorities. It involves writing bills, having debates, rolling up sleeves, and trying to get their ideas through two chambers and onto the president’s desk.

A debt ceiling crisis abandons the U.S. model for a radical alternative in which one party — the Republican Party — gets what it wants, not through the country’s legislative system, but by threatening their own constituents. For a president to engage in such a process would be to lend it legitimacy it has not earned and does not deserve.

2. The GOP has other options. To hear Bacon tell it, voters elected a small Republican House majority — while expanding the Democratic majority in the Senate — with the expectation that Congress would “tackle reckless spending.” I don’t know if that’s actually what the electorate wants, but let’s say for the sake of conversation that the Nebraskan is right.

If so, he and his colleagues can write a budget. They can craft appropriations bills. They can identify what spending they consider “wasteful” and “reckless.” They can threaten to make this a campaign issue and target Democrats who defend unnecessary spending. They can urge the White House to work with them on these goals.

What they cannot do is threaten to hurt Americans on purpose and expect a constructive response. Adults in positions of authority make substantive appeals; criminals make appeals while threatening others with deliberate harm.

Four years ago at this time, we had a political landscape that looked a lot like the current one, except the party labels were reversed: Voters had just elected a small Democratic majority in the House while expanding the Republican majority in the Senate, all while there was a GOP president in the Oval Office.

Imagine what the response would’ve been if Democrats declared, “We got elected to protect health care benefits and we expect an immediate expansion of the Affordable Care Act. The president cannot say he refuses to negotiate. We have divided government and the president needs to come to the table or we’ll cause a deliberate economic catastrophe.”

This would likely be seen as scandalous, and for good reason. The onus wouldn’t be on Donald Trump to come to the negotiating table; the onus would be on the small Democratic majority in the House to stop threatening the public.

And yet, here we are.

3. Biden can’t set a dangerous precedent. The American presidency is a unique office, as Biden seems to understand. If he were to negotiate with those threatening Americans, it would necessarily encourage others to also threaten Americans, wondering what kind of concessions they too could get out of the White House.

Rewarding hostage takers leads to more hostages being taken. Rewarding radicalism leads to more radicals. Rewarding those who abandon the U.S. policymaking process leads others to abandon our system of government and take their chances with extortion schemes.

Real, meaningful negotiations are possible, but not while Republicans point a gun at our economy.

Circling back to our recent coverage, Bacon’s pitch effectively argues that Republicans are entitled, not only to pursue spending cuts, but also to threaten our collective wellbeing.

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 put economic stability in jeopardy in pursuit of conservative goals.

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 dangerously wrong. That way madness lies.