A Thought or Two on Negotiating the Debt Limit

The Biden administration has a point.

Via WaPo: Biden aides want to force GOP to abandon debt limit threats.

Shortly after last year’s midterm elections, a senior congressional Democrat called White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and asked how the administration planned to prevent the new Republican House majority from using the debt ceiling — and the threat of a default that could wreck the economy — to force spending cuts.

Klain said the White House’s plan was straightforward, according to the lawmaker: Refuse to entertain any concessions, and launch a barrage of attacks highlighting the GOP position that would force Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to fold.

[…]

A White House spokesman declined to comment on internal discussions but pointed to press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre’s prior remarks on the debt limit, including her claim that “we’re just not going to negotiate about that.”

Let me start by noting (as I have multiple times before) that the debt ceiling is an absurd construct that should be abolished. If Congress votes for spending that requires borrowing, that should be sufficient to authorize a new debt “ceiling.” If House Republicans would like to do the hard work of actually proposing a balanced budget for the upcoming fiscal year, they certainly can do so. Holding already committed spending hostage to leverage future cuts is simply not an appropriate route, especially given what the brinksmanship threatens (i.e., global economic consequences, in case you haven’t been paying attention).

As such, I understand the Biden administration’s stance. Although I would note a few things worthy of thinking about.

First, the act of saying that they will not negotiate is kind of an act of negotiation to start with, is it not? It is staking out a position at the start of a process, but the degree to which it represents where the administration will be in a few months is a different issue. So, we shall see how this evolves.

Second, and more importantly, if House Republicans want to negotiate over this issue, their logical partners are the Senate Democrats, not the White House.

Moreover, I will call on them to do what I have called on previous majorities of both chambers of both parties over the years: if they are serious about a particular approach, pass the legislation needed to accomplish the goal and then try and find a way to get the other chamber to act, and then reconcile the approaches. Go beyond the rhetoric. Show us what you want to do.

A third thought is that the Biden administration (and the Democratic Party writ large) is likely politically smart to not give an inch, especially at the onset, because the Republicans are playing with political fire. To truly do what they want to do will require cutting Medicare and Social Security, which is not a popular position–especially in a time of inflation. Not to mention the effects on the stock market will hit GOP constituencies hard as McCarthy and friends Thelma-and-Louise us toward a cliff.

At a minimum, it will not help the GOP to go into 2024 threatened to wreck social security, medicare, and the global economy. As such, I expect they will blink first, or we are going to end up with absurdities like the $1 trillion coin.

Side note: I will believe that Republicans are truly concerned about the debt when they include taxes in their proposals, as without increased revenue, cutting their way to debt reduction is almost impossible without draconian cuts that simply aren’t going to happen. Of course, as they proved when last they had unified control of the government, they are simply not interested in controlling the debt.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Deficit and Debt, The Presidency, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Slugger says:

    I know that household analogies are largely irrelevant to running a government, but this debt limit thing is very much like running around with a credit card and then refusing to pay the bill at the end of the month. Bill Clinton proposed a balanced budget. Obama took over during an economic downturn and had a large deficit his first year, but this declined in subsequent years. Trump took over with a good economy and had dramatically higher deficits. The Republican presidents we have had are not deficit reducers.

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  2. Gustopher says:

    Klain said the White House’s plan was straightforward, according to the lawmaker: Refuse to entertain any concessions, and launch a barrage of attacks highlighting the GOP position that would force Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to fold.

    That seems to be playing with fire — McCarthy needs to keep in Q caucus on his side to remain speaker, so he is going to be very reluctant to fold.

    Put a discharge petition on the floor, and then you’re waiting for a handful of Republicans to break with the party. For instance, the recently elected NY Republicans or other frontline Republicans who want to show they are independent. It also lets McCarthy fold quietly while saving face, privately signaling to a few Representatives that they should sign on.

    I enjoy the humiliation of McCarthy as much as anyone, but I’m willing to put the country first.

    And, if there are no Republicans willing to sign on because they fear the primary more than the general election and no one is planning to retire, the pressure campaign on McCarthy can continue.

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  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    Until R’s announce what they want for extending the debt limit and put that laundry list in proposed legislation, there is nothing to talk about.

    It is also quite likely that Schumer and McConnell will come to an agreement of extending the debt limit before the House Rs can get their ducks in a row.

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  4. gVOR08 says:

    if they are serious about a particular approach, pass the legislation needed to accomplish the goal and then try and find a way to get the other chamber to act, and then reconcile the approaches.

    That would require GOPs admitting they want to cut SS and Medicare, something they are not about to do. And getting a vote specifically in favor of doing so, something they can’t do. They’ve wanted to cut SS since 1935. They’ve never admitted so. Lately I don’t think they want to kill it, they want to reduce it and privatize what’s left, as W tried to do. It must eat at Goldman Sachs to see that huge pile of money and they can’t skim a nickel from it. So Republicans think they’re being clever and going to get cuts and force Dems to hold the bag for it. It’s this schizophrenia in the Republican Party, the agenda they can’t talk about covered by lies and fake populist rhetoric, that has produced what we see before us.

    @Slugger: To go further with the household budget analogy, most households do not balance their budgets. They depend on holding a mortgage, car loans, credit card debt, etc. that often equal or exceed a years income.

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  5. Andy says:

    This has always been a political football for partisan advantage, and the WH is playing that long-standing game.

    But the difference here, I think, is McCarthy’s weak position and GoP divisions in the House. It’s questionable whether Republicans can compromise with themselves on this.

    Added to this is the problem of how the position of the Speaker has become despotic in terms of controlling the House agenda. It no longer matters what the entire House will vote for, it matters what the Speaker is willing to let come to the floor because the Speaker controls the House agenda. The political calculus for a Speaker to keep their job, therefore, is to not allow anything to come to the floor that would risk their position as Speaker – it’s become an partisan elected dictatorship.

    The reality is that if the Speaker let a clean debt ceiling bill come to the floor and allowed it to go through the normal amendment process, we’d likely get some kind of bipartisan deal. Or a clean bill might just pass on its own. Pelosi didn’t bring a clean bill up for negotiation and amendment, and neither will McCarthy, and the reason is that the incentives for the Speaker all work against that normal process.

    So this is, in large part, a problem of how the House is currently run, and has been run, since Ryan was Speaker and regular order was ended.

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  6. Kathy says:

    I think Klain said “We do not negotiate with terrorists.”

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  7. Andy says:

    @Andy:

    I meant to add that this change in the Speaker’s role and authority makes compromise harder, not easier, and increases the chance of a debt ceiling fight blowing up in bad ways.

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  8. @Andy:

    So this is, in large part, a problem of how the House is currently run, and has been run, since Ryan was Speaker and regular order was ended.

    While I don’t disagree that the way the House is run is a major variable here, the notion that the power of the Speaker and the majority started with Ryan is simply incorrect. I note this less to correct you directly, but because I have seen this notion pop up a number of times in various places of late.

    While I agree that there has been an evolution in House procedures that are relevant, the overall structure of power in the House is far older than Ryan’s speakership.

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  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Gustopher: McCarthy needs to keep in Q caucus on his side to remain speaker,

    If McCarthy wants a congress to be a member of he’ll tell the Qaucus to fck off.

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  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    All of this speculation seems to come from the assumption that McCarthy really wants to legislate. What if that assumption isn’t true?

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  11. Michael Cain says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    All of this speculation seems to come from the assumption that McCarthy really wants to legislate.

    Maybe just me being optimistic, but I do believe that if McCarthy and the Freedom Caucus announce they won’t legislate, with the intent of crashing the US/world economy in mid-summer, and shutting down as much of the federal government as they can at the end of September, there are at least five Republicans who will caucus with the Democrats to elect Jeffries Speaker and pass a debt ceiling increase and continuing resolution on the budget.

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  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    but I do believe that if McCarthy and the Freedom Caucus announce they won’t legislate, with the intent of crashing the US/world economy in mid-summer, and shutting down as much of the federal government as they can at the end of September,

    I don’t think they will make an announcement such as the one you suggest, either. Announcing that they intend to crash the world economy would have a political price at some point. Beyond that, I suspect they are genuinely too ignorant and dogmatic to believe that their actions can perform that result, so they don’t really believe what you claim as their goal. In fact, they would call you names if you expressed that thought to them. I think they will keep dog whistling their message of “responsible budget control” and “keeping the job producers able to do their job.”

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  13. KM says:

    @Michael Cain:
    There’s enough conservative rich people who’s brains outweigh their ideology to understand what the GOP is proposing will destroy their wealth. Those donors will be able to find enough GOP to break ranks and vote with the Dems if push comes to shove – after all, in America the only color that really matters is green. Red-pilled nuts like Musk might think they’ll be fine if the global economy goes boom but the rest of them value their own asses and assets too much to risk it. Megabillionaires might be fine but the lower level rich will quickly realize that wealth is dependent on a functioning economy.

    I have little faith in the goodness in men’s hearts or soundness of their minds nowadays but I firmly believe in their dedication to their wallets.

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  14. Andy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    While I don’t disagree that the way the House is run is a major variable here, the notion that the power of the Speaker and the majority started with Ryan is simply incorrect.

    While I agree that there has been an evolution in House procedures that are relevant, the overall structure of power in the House is far older than Ryan’s speakership.

    First of all, I did not say that the power of the Speaker started with Ryan, but it’s undeniable the power increased significantly under Ryan. There was an evolution to be sure when it comes to the growth of the authority and power of the Speaker, but it was Ryan that ended the ability of members to offer amendments to the floor and ended regular order, which Pelosi continued.

    You can look at the House stats for yourself to see how much consequential legislation was considered under open rules or went through the normal committee process before and after Ryan made this change.

    Come to think of it, I’m frankly surprised you’re not more outspoken about this. A legislative body whose agenda is effectively controlled by a single member selected by a partisan majority is arguably not democratic.

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  15. Chip Daniels says:

    I think it is imperative that the American people come to grips with the radicalism and insanity of the Republican caucus.
    Up to now, their radicalism has been confined to empty talk and bravado while the machinery of govnerment chugs along.
    A MAGA in Texas can go to rallys and scream and shout all he wants, but Medicare bills get paid, Social Security checks get sent, and international trade-dependent job continues to hum along.

    Its time to call their bluff and let everyone see what is really going on.

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