Debt-Limit Brinkmanship Is Dead

The GOP hatched this high-stakes strategy in the spring of 2011, but today is the day it officially died.

John Boehner, William Temple
House Speaker John Boehner never wanted any of the debt-limit brinkmanship, supported by Tea Party activists like William Temple (right), in the first place.

Photos by Getty Images

Washington had returned to normal; reporters had surrounded Sen. Lindsey Graham to seek his wisdom. It had been only two hours since the House Republicans announced that they wouldn’t demand any concessions in exchange for raising the debt limit. They would pass a “clean” bill, on the expectation that nearly every House Democrat would bail them out and support it. Graham, one of the Senate’s Tesla coils of compromise, was explaining how the House Republicans blew it.

“If I was in the House, I’d put something in the debt ceiling bill that made sense to the average American,” said the South Carolina senator. Those words, debt ceiling, sucked in yet more eavesdropping budget and finance reporters, who pointed the business ends of their recorders at Graham. “Maybe there’d be a stimulus package where you repatriate corporate earnings to put in infrastructure projects that all of us would like to see happen. There are creative things you can do to grow the economy and decrease debt.”

Here was Congress, giving up on the three-year battle to attach spending cuts to the debt limit. Here was Graham, explaining why it didn’t have to be this way. It was the return of the golden age, pre-2011, low-stakes politics of the debt ceiling. The minority party votes “no,” the majority grudgingly raises the thing, and no one facilitates a crisis. The debt limit was restored to its natural and accidental place, as a vehicle for trolling.

In its forgettable, shrugging way, this was history. Two months ago, the Ryan-Murray budget agreement had ended the four-year quest for a “grand bargain” by funding the government above the levels set in 2011 and not cutting entitlements. The Republicans’ Tuesday collapse marked the end, for now, of the debt limit brinkmanship that House Speaker John Boehner never wanted in the first place.

Really, he didn’t—though he saw it coming. At the end of 2010, as it became clear that Republicans would run the House of Representatives, people started to wonder whether the new members would agree to raise the debt limit. Boehner, in a December 2010 interview with The New Yorker, acknowledged that they’d have to. “For people who’ve never been in politics it’s going to be one of those growing moments,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult, I’m certainly well aware of that. But we’ll have to find a way to help educate members and help people understand the serious problem that would exist if we didn’t do it.”

Thus began the Tea Party Era (2010–2011) of the debt limit crisis. Boehner had been presumptuous, and his new troops started correcting him. “I think until proven otherwise we’re looking for $300 billion in cuts if that’s possible,” said South Carolina Rep. Tim Scott, co-president of the freshman class, after the “adult moment” interview ran. “Right now all the talk about the issue seems to be that it’s a foregone conclusion that you cannot do that. I’d like to let the proof be in the pudding.”

For the next seven months, the Refuseniks effectively ran the House. More than enough Republicans pledged to not raise the debt limit under any circumstances. Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey proposed legislation that would have promised “to pay with legal tender the principal and interest on debt,” and not any other government obligations, in case the ceiling was breached. Boehner and his team dispatched experts to explain why default would be unthinkable; his membership simply didn’t believe it. When former undersecretary of the treasury Jay Powell showed Republicans a PowerPoint presentation on the crisis, conservatives like Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey read him emails from banker friends who didn’t buy it.

So Boehner learned the lingo. “I think this is the moment and this is the opportunity for us as Americans to tackle our long-term fiscal issue,” he said as the crisis loomed. To shame Democrats, he brought up a “clean” bill to raise the debt limit by $2.4 trillion. It failed on a 97–318 vote. Meanwhile, House conservatives endorsed a plan—Cut, Cap, and Balance—that would raise the limit only when paired with wish-list conservative reforms. The pledge was rolled out at a special rally in the Senate that featured Republicans joined by scores of Washington-based conservative groups—the Club for Growth, the Institute for Liberty—and Tea Party organizations from the national Tea Party Express to the homey Kitchen Table Patriots. It would be adopted by most of the 2012 GOP candidates for president.

Since then, the pledge has vanished from the Internet. The movement activists who’d pushed for it sound, today, completely fatalistic and unsurprised that the debt limit would be raised without a real fight.

“When Republicans were divided on that issue, it was basically a free pass for Democrats,” said Tea Party Express strategist Sal Russo. “Nobody ever wants to default. That’s not a constructive way to talk about things, and we didn’t make a very good education effort to explain otherwise.”

They didn’t, which meant that the eventual Budget Control Act that ended the crisis substituted the long-term cuts for “sequestration,” automatic cuts that could be replaced by a “supercommittee” of … honestly, it’s just too pathetic to think about it again. Suffice to say that the deal began the Empty Promise Era (2011–2014) of the debt limit crisis, a period of Republicans (mostly Boehner) saying that, of course, after the 2012 election the debt limit would be restored as leverage for reforms.

It’s difficult to count how many times this was said. Sometimes, Boehner promised a “whale of a fight” when the debt limit came up. Sometimes he invoked the “Boehner rule,” and said any debt limit increase, naturally, would be paired with spending cuts equal to the new, borrowed money. (This became a “rule” despite never actually happening.) In February 2011, Boehner pushed through a temporary delay of the debt limit on the promise that the GOP would have more leverage in the fall. When fall came, the “Boehner rule” was revised—now, any sort of reforms, no matter what the cost, would be good enough for a debt limit increase.

None of this ever worked, and Republicans argue about the reasons why. One theory: The October 2013 government shutdown scared Republicans straight and convinced them that brinkmanship wasn’t worth it unless they had a clear plan for victory.

“It did change the environment when the American people rejected the shutdown,” Arizona Sen. John McCain said on Tuesday. “It was a disaster. People can say that it wasn’t, but it was. Don’t ask me. Look at the poll numbers.”

Another theory is that the stakes for Republicans, if they voted to raise the debt limit, were never as high as they thought. Only six House Republicans lost primaries in 2012. All but three of them—Florida Rep. Cliff Stearns, Oklahoma Rep. John Sullivan, and Ohio Rep. Jean Schmidt—were victims of redistricted maps that forced them into primaries against their colleagues. After 2012, ensconced in their safe seats, few Republicans feared being primaried for a debt limit vote.

There’s an alternative theory, one that Republicans never bring up. The deficit, the driver of the debt limit crisis, has shrunk steadily since 2011. A week before Tuesday’s debt limit vote, in the CBO report that Republicans were largely using to attack the health care law, the deficit was projected to shrink to $514 billion, or half of what it had been when the Tea Party won the 2010 midterms.

This has brought us back to the norm—the Era of Concern Trolling (1917–2010, 2014–present). Republicans aren’t happy about this and rejected the idea that this week’s surrender meant that no big policies could ever be leveraged in by a debt limit vote. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake argued that crises, and only crises, forced action on spending.

But there’ll be no crisis this year. “If the position of the Democratic Party is that we’re going to borrow money forever without addressing why we’re in debt, I hope that becomes an issue in 2014,” said Graham. “Politically, they’re misjudging where the American people are.” He headed off to the GOP’s weekly luncheon, saying he’d vote against the “clean” debt limit bill.

A few hours later, it passed the House.