No one is quite sure of the exact date. But sometime in late October, the government is going to run out of money to borrow. To prevent the United States government from defaulting on its debts, something that would prompt an economic meltdown, Congress needs to pass a bill raising the federal debt limit. As of now, Democrats and Republicans are at a complete impasse about how to pass this, and there is no endgame in sight.
We wish we could say that this high-stakes standoff stems from profound ideological disagreement, or critical matters of state. Instead, at the core of this potentially catastrophic game of chicken playing out at the highest levels of government are the rinky-dink politics of dumb 2022 campaign ads.
But let me back up. The person being the most ridiculous here, first and foremost, is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. While debt limit hikes over the last decade, including during the Trump years, have been done on a bipartisan basis, often negotiated as part of overall spending deals, McConnell has for months maintained that Republicans absolutely will not help Democrats raise the debt limit this time. There is not any precedent for this and, as Paul Kane wrote in the Washington Post, McConnell has “essentially created a new rule out of whole cloth to justify his actions.” (Sound familiar?) His new rule is that when a party has unified control of government, it is that party’s responsibility to increase the debt limit on its own. He will not even engage in negotiations or ask for something in exchange. If a debt limit hike comes up in any bill, he—and enough Republicans to successfully filibuster it—will vote to default on the federal debt. Which he thinks would be bad, but also not his problem.
The reason McConnell is staking this position is that he wants material for campaign ads. He wants Democrats, without any Republican help, to do the work of increasing the debt limit by a big number, a great deal of which was amassed during the Trump administration. Then, Republicans can run campaign ads about how reckless Democrats increased the debt by a huge number, when Democrats were just giving the Treasury authority to pay the bills we’ve already accrued.
This quest for televised talking points guides even the tiniest tactical decisions McConnell is making here. For instance: Some Senate Democrats had floated in recent days that they could pass the increase by themselves, on a clean bill through regular order, so long as Republicans don’t attempt to filibuster it. But McConnell won’t allow that. He is insisting Democrats do it through the reconciliation bill they’re working on. Why? Because if Democrats do it through reconciliation, they have to cite a specific number they’re raising the debt limit to, and can’t just suspend the debt limit for a certain date. McConnell wants Democrats to cite a scary number, for campaign ads. Democrats would also, through reconciliation, have to go through two more “vote-a-ramas,” or all-night open-amendment sessions. That would give McConnell two more long nights of putting Democrats on-the-record on fraught issues, which Republicans could then convert into—you got it—campaign ads.
To review: McConnell wants Democrats to own the selection of a scary number on a must-pass item, so he can run campaign ads against them, and he insists they do it through the procedural route that would allow Republicans to secure even more campaign ad material.
You may be wondering: Why does McConnell, in 2021, think voters care so much about the national debt? While it’s still a concern in the abstract for plenty of people, that figure has gone down in the last ten years. Much of the Republican Party abandoned even the pretense of caring about the debt under Trump, who was calling for sending $2,000 checks to everyone on his way out the door. Few prioritize the issue of deficit reduction.
Maybe McConnell is wrong that raising the debt limit will repel swing voters. One thing he’s identified, though, is that enough Democrats in Congress still think it, too, and they have allowed campaign ad fears to get in their heads.
Since Republicans began weaponizing debt limit increases during the Obama administration, just about every Democrat has either publicly or privately adopted the appropriate position: The debt limit is a catastrophically stupid law that shouldn’t exist. Raising it doesn’t increase spending itself; it just allows the government to finance all the spending that Congress has already approved. It has straightforwardly not served its purpose of being a “check on runaway spending,” but it has allowed bad-faith actors to wield it as a suicide vest unless some political demand of theirs is met. It’s an international embarrassment that binds the stability of global markets to our broken domestic politics. A responsible majority would work to either repeal it or—as Democrats have the power to do on their own—raise it to a cartoonishly high number to ensure it’s never an issue again. Rather than being a difficult vote, this should be a crowning achievement worthy of a ticker-tape parade.
But Democrats are too scared of the campaign ads to do that! And so they went all-in on brinkmanship and attempting to coerce Republicans to raise the debt limit with them on a bipartisan basis, believing that pressure from their donors, banks, businesses, etc. would finally bring them around.
“Oh come on, they’re not gonna let us default,” as Delaware Sen. Chris Coons told Axios last week, was for months a typical Democratic response to a reporter’s question about whether they were nervous about a default. Why wouldn’t they? McConnell might not mind if the economy melts down under a Democratic president. That’s good campaign ad material, too.
Some Democrats do finally seem to be taking the threat seriously this week. “I am worried because I know Sen. McConnell makes these pronouncements and has a tendency to ignore the consequences,” Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the no. 2 Senate Democratic leader, told reporters Monday.
So now, Democrats have a choice. They can either stay on the current path and pray that Mitch McConnell is bluffing about how his members will not, under any circumstances, vote to raise the debt limit. Or they can get to work on a revised budget that allows them to raise the debt limit on their own, and do the work of selling to the public the truth: That this was a fantastic vote! The debt limit stinks! The campaign ads are lies! And then, the next time Republicans are in total control of government and need to raise it, Democrats can go on vacation.
They need to decide soon.