Michael R. Strain: Raise the debt ceiling, Republicans. You’ll be glad you did

By Michael R. Strain

It’s unfortunate but true: Influential Republican politicians are playing another round of political chicken that could easily lead to a damaging brush with default on the national debt. There are better ways for them to rein in excessive Democratic spending plans that don’t endanger financial markets, taxpayers and their own political self-interest.

The U.S. is flirting with default this fall, as it did twice before in the past decade. For the government to pay its bills, Congress needs to increase the nation’s debt limit, an increasingly problematic legal requirement imposed a century ago. Unfortunately, it’s looking like this routine function of government will descend into a partisan fight. While there’s little doubt that the limit will eventually be raised, even merely pushing up against it would be damaging.

It’s hard to say precisely when the government will run out of money because the Treasury Department’s cash receipts fluctuate, particularly during the pandemic. Treasury estimates that it will run out of funds sometime in October.

Senate Republicans have made clear that they want no part in increasing the borrowing limit to raise the necessary cash. On Aug. 10, 46 of the chamber’s 50 Republicans released a letter informing Senate Democrats that they won’t vote to increase the debt ceiling.

Republican frustration is understandable. Since January, Democrats have been threatening to use a procedure known as “reconciliation” to pass a $3.5 trillion spending bill with a simple majority, rather than the 60-vote supermajority typically required in the Senate. GOP senators are asking: If reconciliation is available to pass, say, paid family leave and universal pre-kindergarten programs, why not force Democrats to use it to lift the government’s borrowing limit without Republican assent?

This question has answers. First, it’s unclear whether the reconciliation rules would allow a debt-ceiling increase to be passed as a stand-alone bill. The Senate doesn’t have a lot of experience using this procedure, and my conversations with top aides on Capitol Hill indicate a lot of confusion on this point.

Another suggestion is that Democrats include the debt-ceiling increase in their $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, which would create and expand major climate and social programs and lacks any Republican support. But there’s no guarantee that the spending bill will be able to get the unanimous Democratic support needed to pass it by a simple majority, or that it would pass before the government would need to increase the borrowing limit to avoid default. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi closed the door on this option on Wednesday. In addition, it’s an odd strategy to push for including a must-pass provision in a bill that you don’t want to pass.

Republicans want to preserve the filibuster, the 60-vote threshold required for most legislation. Without it, Democrats could run the table, passing their agenda with a simple majority in the Senate. Refusing to raise the debt ceiling and forcing Democrats to find a way to increase it with a 51-vote majority will substantially weaken the GOP’s claim that the Senate can carry out basic functions of responsible governance with the chamber’s supermajority requirement in place. By refusing to help lift the debt ceiling, the GOP would be putting the legislative filibuster at risk.

There’s no chance that the debt ceiling won’t eventually be raised. The only question is how much damage is incurred along the way.

Even edging close to defaulting is dangerous, as recent experience shows. According to the Government Accountability Office, debt-ceiling brinkmanship pushed up interest rates in 2011, leaving taxpayers on the hook for an extra $1.3 billion in government borrowing costs in that year alone. The Bipartisan Policy Center estimated that the 10-year cost was roughly $19 billion.

Financial market volatility and measures of economic policy uncertainty spiked, and consumer confidence plummeted. Republicans — whose cultural agenda has strong appeal among higher-income, college-educated voters — should note that stock prices also fell, reducing the value of retirement and college-savings plans.

An even bigger threat than a close call would be temporarily defaulting. This scenario is made more likely because of multiple sources of intersecting uncertainty: precisely when the government will run out of cash, reconciliation rules, the fate of the $3.5 trillion spending bill, and whether Congress can pass a measure this month to prevent a government shutdown. It’s unclear how an effort to raise the debt limit might be intertwined with any of these. In all this activity and confusion, the unthinkable might happen.

Republicans should anticipate that if they push too hard, the stock market is likely to drop by thousands of points per day and they would take most of the blame. After one or two days, Congress would surely pass a debt-limit increase with overwhelming bipartisan support. In this scenario, what has the GOP accomplished?

Instead of refusing to lift the debt ceiling, Republicans should find something to trade with the Democrats. Disaster-relief funds. A larger defense budget. Or something. Find 10 Republican senators to join forces with 50 Democrats to meet the Senate’s supermajority requirement. Let the rest of the GOP — especially those who have to run for re-election in 2022 — off the hook.

This would be responsible governance, ensuring that the U.S. honors its financial obligations. It would constitute a strong argument for retaining the legislative filibuster. If done quickly, it would avoid the economic and political damage from brinkmanship. If done with a bill to keep the government funded, it would refocus public attention on the Democrats’ floundering efforts to pass President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.

Quickly and quietly taking care of this is in the party’s — and the country’s — best interest.


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