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Why Mitch McConnell is threatening to hurt the economy on purpose

A full decade after the nation's first-ever debt ceiling crisis, Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans are gearing up for a dangerous sequel.

In most legislative fights, Democrats and Republicans operate in competing versions of reality. From health care to taxes, climate to immigration, the major parties often can't agree what to do because they can't agree on what's real.

But the debt ceiling is qualitatively different.

Both parties are well aware of the fact that raising the debt ceiling allows the United States government to meet its fiscal obligations. Both parties fully understand that if the country fails to raise the debt ceiling, and our government defaults on its obligations, the results would be disastrous.

This isn't one of those fights in which Republicans struggle with substantive details, ignore the experts and concoct a weird alternate reality. GOP officials and Democratic officials are on the same page: Congress must pay its bills to protect the full faith and credit of the United States.

The problem right now is that Republicans are simply refusing to govern responsibly. NBC News reported yesterday on

A battle over the debt limit on Capitol Hill is intensifying after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans dug in this week against voting to raise it.... "Let me be crystal clear about this: Republicans are united in opposition to raising the debt ceiling," McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters after a Senate GOP caucus meeting Tuesday.

The Kentucky senator justified his position — conceding that he's voted for plenty of other debt ceiling increases — by arguing that Democrats are pursuing an ambitious economic agenda that Republicans don't like.

The Washington Post's Greg Sargent described the GOP leader's position as "lunacy," which is more than fair given the circumstances.

Republicans are not against a debt ceiling increase. Rather, they're against voting for a debt ceiling increase. That's ridiculous, of course, but it's made worse by GOP plans to filibuster the vote when Democrats try to take the obvious step.

In other words, the Senate Republicans' position can be reduced to three straightforward points:

  1. Congress must raise the debt ceiling.
  2. Democrats must do this on their own.
  3. Republicans won't let Democrats do this on their own.

I can appreciate the fact that political observers have grown accustomed to GOP politicians acting in bad faith, to the point that it's simply baked into political assumptions about current events. This morning, for example, Punchbowl News noted in passing that "both sides" are "dug in" over the issue. The New York Times added that Democrats "do not appear to have a strategy" to get the job done.

But the descriptions are incomplete. One side of the political divide wants the United States to pay its bills; the other side is threatening to deliberately crash the economy as part of a political game.

This shouldn't be seen as a standoff in which "both sides" are "dug in"; this should be seen for what it is: a scandal in which a major political party says it's prepared to hurt Americans on purpose.

I'm mindful of the fact that many normal people probably forget the key elements of this issue, so for those who may benefit from a fresher, let's circle back to everyone's favorite debt ceiling Q&A.

Wait, do we really have to talk about the debt ceiling again?

I'm afraid so. No one wants to have this conversation — now or ever — but Senate Republicans are picking the fight, so it's important for the public to understand what's at stake.

Fine. It's been a decade since I last thought about this, so you might as well refresh my memory and tell me what the heck the debt ceiling is.

In our system of government, Congress has the "power of the purse" and appropriates federal funds, but it's the executive branch that actually spends the money. For the most part, this works relatively smoothly, though there's an important sticking point: the executive branch lacks the legal authority to spend more than the country takes in.

Since the United States nearly always runs an annual budget deficit, this means administrations have spent decades going back to Congress and asking lawmakers to extend the nation's borrowing limit — in effect, getting permission to spend the money lawmakers already allocated.

This model seems badly flawed.

It is. In fact, no major economy on the planet operates this way.

What happens if the United States fails to extend its borrowing authority?

Nothing good. Failure would result in the world's largest economy defaulting on its debts and obligations, which would likely spark a global crisis. It's precisely why Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned lawmakers of "catastrophic consequences."

But for most of modern history, this hasn't made much of a difference, right?

Right. Lawmakers in both parties have occasionally used the process of raising the debt ceiling for grandstanding, but neither party had ever seriously entertained the possibility of trashing the full faith and credit of the United States government.

And then?

And then Republicans won control of the U.S. House in the 2010 midterms, and got to work launching a first-of-its-kind debt ceiling crisis in 2011. GOP lawmakers told the Obama White House that they would refuse to extend the nation's borrowing limit — which is to say, refuse to cover the debts the nation had already accrued — until Democrats met the Republican Party's non-negotiable demands.

You make it sound as if GOP elected officials held the nation hostage.

Because they did. In fact, McConnell himself described his party's tactics as a "hostage" strategy at the time. Soon after, then-Vice President Joe Biden reportedly told congressional Democrats, in reference to GOP lawmakers, "They have acted like terrorists."

When GOP lawmakers created this crisis in 2011, did it really make a difference?

Yes. The fact that Republicans were prepared to crash the global economy, on purpose, did not go unnoticed. Just as the nation was finding its footing after the Great Recession, the GOP's debt-ceiling crisis slowed job growth in the United States to a crawl, did real harm to the nation's global reputation, and led to the first-ever downgrade to our debt rating.

Why didn't Republicans pay a price for engaging in such scandalous tactics?

Largely much of the Beltway media covered the story as just another fiscal fight between Democrats and Republicans. It's likely why Republicans feel comfortable giving this another try now.

So why has it been a decade since I last heard about this?

Because when Republicans tried to launch additional debt-ceiling fights after 2011, then-President Barack Obama drew a line in the sand from which he did not deviate: He would not negotiate with those threatening Americans with deliberate harm. GOP lawmakers made post-2011 threats, and put together ransom notes, but when the Democratic White House refused to engage, Republicans ultimately had no choice but to approve clean debt ceiling increases.

And what about during the Trump era? Did Democrats try to borrow a page from the GOP's playbook?

No. During Trump's term — a four-year period in which Republicans forgot to pretend to care about the deficit and spending concerns — Congress raised the debt ceiling three times without incident. Two years ago, Trump went so far as to declare, "I can't imagine anybody using the debt ceiling as a negotiating wedge." The Republican went on to describe the debt limit as a "sacred thing in our country."

Evidently, the GOP has changed its mind now that there's another Democratic president.


What's on the Republicans' list of hostage demands this year?

For the most part, nothing. GOP leaders aren't making specific demands, so much as they're saying they'll simply refuse to engage in responsible governing on this issue. The White House, meanwhile, is saying it wouldn't matter if McConnell & Co. came up with a ransom note, because the president won't negotiate with those threatening to harm Americans on purpose.

How many Senate Republican votes does the Democratic majority need?

In theory, none, since there's a Democratic majority, but in practice, Democrats will need at least 10 GOP votes to overcome a Republican filibuster.

Are there are any Senate Republicans prepared to approach this in a responsible way?

Not yet. The grand total of GOP senators who've said they'll vote for a debt ceiling increase is, as of this morning, zero.

How much longer until the deadline?

The Treasury Department hasn't yet identified a drop-dead deadline, but Yellen has told Congress that members will have to act by next month.

Do Democrats expect Republicans to come around before it's too late?

Yes, but that's a risky assumption and McConnell insisted yesterday that he and his members will refuse to be responsible.

And if McConnell's right?

Democrats can try attaching a debt ceiling increase to some other bill; they can create a new exception to the Senate's filibuster rules; or they can blame Republicans for doing enormous harm to the nation's economic health and stability.

Watch this space.