Politics

Republicans’ Debt Ceiling Brinkmanship Is Self-Incriminating

They promise that America will avoid a calamitous default—because they’re not in power.

three old white men in suits walking
From left, Sens. John Barrasso, Mitch McConnell, and John Thune walk through the Capitol Tuesday. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The federal government is about to breach its legal borrowing limit. Republicans in Congress acknowledge that this would be catastrophic: It would crash the economy and force a default from which the United States would never fully recover. Congress could avert this crisis by raising the debt ceiling, but Republicans refuse to do so. They’re pledging to vote in lockstep against the debt ceiling increase, and they’re claiming that this behavior on their part—in effect, voting to sabotage the government and the economy—doesn’t matter, because they don’t have enough votes to win.

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It’s an odd message. In a normal democracy, each party tells voters that if it’s elected, good things will happen, and bad things will be prevented. Republicans are saying the opposite: that America will be spared a terrible fate because the other party controls Congress. The Republican message is that the country will survive because Republicans don’t hold power.

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Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the Senate, agrees that a debt ceiling breach is unthinkable. “America must never default. The debt ceiling will need to be raised,” he affirmed last week at a press conference. “Don’t play Russian roulette with our economy,” McConnell told Democrats. “Step up and raise the debt ceiling.” Yet he vowed that his party would do the opposite. “We will not provide Republican votes for raising the debt limit,” he declared on Monday. John Thune, the GOP’s second-ranking senator, pledged that not a “single Republican” would vote to raise the limit.

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At the same time, Senate Republicans promised that nothing bad would happen, because Democrats would save the day. “The debt ceiling will be raised, as it always should be, but it will be raised by the Democrats,” said McConnell. In a CNN interview, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey delivered the same message. “There is no calamity that’s going to happen,” Toomey assured viewers, because “after Republicans vote no,” Democrats would “pass the debt ceiling all by themselves.”

Republicans think that by voting against the debt ceiling hike, they’re showing that Democrats are responsible for the debt. But they’re really demonstrating that the security of the United States depends on Democratic control of Congress. In press briefings, Republican leaders in the House and Senate have argued that the country is safe because, in the words of Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, Democrats “can keep the government operating, not default on the debt, and do it without a single Republican vote.”

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That margin of safety—a single Republican vote—is hardly comforting. Republicans are one seat away from controlling the Senate. They’re six seats away from controlling the House. If anything were to happen to 81-year old Sen. Patrick Leahy or 80-year-old Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s Republican governor would appoint their temporary replacement. The economy-wrecking Republican minority in the Senate could instantly become a majority. In fact, this could happen between the passage of new spending legislation—approved by 50 Democrats and Vice President Kamala Harris—and a subsequent vote on the debt ceiling, with Republicans suddenly controlling 51 seats.

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Congressional Republicans say they’re being fiscally responsible, not hypocritical. They insist that the debt limit hike applies only to future spending, not to spending that has already occurred. That claim is preposterous. If it were true, there would be no need to raise the debt limit until Congress passes a new spending bill. In reality, as Republicans have acknowledged, the government is on track to hit the debt limit in mid-October because it has to cover expenses and revenue losses that were previously approved by Congress, including President Donald Trump’s tax cuts.

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Toomey concedes that a new debt limit hike would cover spending “we have already committed to in the form of the big entitlement programs.” Nineteen Republicans, including McConnell, also voted for a $1 trillion infrastructure bill in August. Fifteen, including McConnell, voted on Thursday to spend billions more to fund the government through December. Yet they insisted on excluding any debt limit increase from the new spending package. They’re willing to run up the government’s credit card. They’re just not willing to pay the credit-card bill.

It’s bad enough that Republicans are threatening to throw the country into default. But they’re also trying to destroy the whole culture of collective responsibility. “There is no tradition of doing this on a bipartisan basis,” McConnell said on Tuesday, referring to raising the debt ceiling. That’s completely false. Democrats repeatedly helped Trump and a Republican Congress raise the debt limit just a few years ago. Democrats were furious that Republicans, on a party-line vote, had passed enormous deficit-financed tax cuts. Nevertheless, Democrats voted to raise the debt limit, in part to help pay for the tax cuts. That’s how congressional responsibility works: Even when the other party wins a vote on how to allocate money, all members have a duty to ensure that the government makes good on its financial commitments.

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Republicans are shredding that principle. They’re reducing Congress to a pit of partisan anarchy in which members who lose a vote on legislation feel no responsibility to pay for that legislation. In fact, they’re claiming a moral right to undercut the legislation by sabotaging the financial arrangements to pay for it. A vote to raise the debt ceiling is, in their words, a vote to “aid and abet” spending they oppose. From this nihilistic perspective, voting no on the debt ceiling is just another weapon of obstruction. It’s “one of the tools available to us,” says Republican Sen. John Cornyn.

This level of ruthlessness is unsustainable. In a showdown over the debt ceiling, it threatens to trigger a federal heart attack, crashing the global economy and destroying the government’s credit rating. Beyond that, Republicans are threatening to unravel Congress as an institution and to dissolve the United States as a polity to which all citizens—even those who lost the last election or the last vote in Congress—are committed.

Fortunately, there’s a simple way to avert this nightmare. Preserve the safeguard that, according to Republicans, is shielding our country from disaster: a Democratic majority in Congress.

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