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Before it’s too late, GOP to teach members what the debt ceiling is

After the 2010 midterms, GOP leaders had to teach their confused members what the debt ceiling was. After the 2022 midterms, it’s happening again.


During the Republicans’ difficult fight over electing a House speaker, Rep. Ralph Norman asked an odd question about Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s intentions. “Is he willing to shut the government down rather than raise the debt ceiling?” the South Carolinian asked. “That’s a nonnegotiable item.”

As a substantive matter, the GOP lawmaker’s question was largely gibberish: The debt ceiling and government shutdowns have effectively nothing to do with one another. It’s the sort of rudimentary detail that Norman, who served on the House Budget Committee, really ought to have known.

And yet, this past weekend, another South Carolina Republican, Rep. Nancy Mace, made a similar mistake. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” host Chuck Todd asked the congresswoman about the dangers of a debt ceiling crisis. She responded by downplaying the significance of government shutdowns — which, again, didn’t make sense at a basic level.

It led me to make the case this week that members of the new House GOP majority need to brush up on these fairly obvious governing details. Evidently, as The Washington Post reported, party leaders are thinking along the same lines.

As Washington prepares for a drawn-out clash over raising the debt limit, House Republican leaders are embarking on an education campaign to make sure their members understand how the debt limit works, the consequences of failing to raise the ceiling, and the difference between a garden-variety government shutdown and a potential debt default.

Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri, the new Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, expressed confidence that his GOP colleagues are “quite well aware” of the relevant details. There’s all kinds of evidence to the contrary.

Indeed, the Post’s article added that some GOP members “have made statements on social media or in interviews that show a lack of understanding about the policy details regarding the legal limit on how much the government can borrow and what could happen if that cap isn’t increased in time.”

If this dynamic sounds at all familiar, it’s not your imagination. About 12 years ago, as Republicans reclaimed a House majority, the GOP prepared to launch the nation’s first-ever debt ceiling crisis. Then-Speaker John Boehner conceded at the time that he and other party leaders would need to “find a way to help educate members.”

It didn’t go especially well: Those House Republicans nevertheless moved forward with the most serious debt ceiling hostage crisis in American history, leading to a humiliating downgrade in the nation’s credit rating. Many GOP lawmakers, throughout the fiasco, continued to struggle with the most basic details.

With any luck, this year’s lessons will be more constructive, though it’s hard not to notice that the new Republican majority appears to be doing things in the wrong order.

A governing party would ordinarily learn the details first, and then proceed with its agenda. A post-policy party proceeds with its agenda and then learns the details.