There are many things that should be left in the Pandemic Before Times: meetings that could have been emails, long and pointless commutes, and working without paid sick leave. Also, consider the debt ceiling. Two years ago, Congress and President Donald Trump agreed to suspend the need to raise the debt ceiling until after the 2020 elections. Having been kicked down the road, the can is back: The debt ceiling is now set to expire on July 31, 2021, unless it is once again extended or suspended further by Congress—and a Politico article last week suggests that both parties are ready to resume their needless, drawn-out fights over this pointless ritual. With unified control of Washington, Democrats should take the opportunity to get rid of the debt ceiling once and for all.
The debt ceiling’s origins are far more humble than its current role in American governance suggests. It first came into existence during World War I as a war measure designed to make it simpler for the government to secure its debts. In 1917, Congress stopped approving each individual issuance of debt by the Treasury in favor of imposing an aggregate limit on the entire federal debt, freeing the government to do what it was already doing. Contrary to popular belief, the ceiling itself does not authorize any new spending or create a blank check for the government to run up new debt. It only caps what the Treasury can do to pay off the spending that Congress has already authorized.
Raising the debt ceiling was a largely unremarkable practice until the mid-1990s, when then–House Speaker Newt Gingrich threatened to block it during a budget showdown with the Clinton administration. After retaking the House in the 2010 midterms, Republicans in the House realized they could use it as a hostage in budgetary negotiations with the Obama administration. Thus followed two major showdowns in 2011 and 2013 over raising the debt ceiling in exchange for a range of billions of dollars in spending cuts. During the first game of chicken, the United States experienced the first downgrade of its national credit rating in history.
For some mysterious reason, the GOP lost its interest in playing hardball over the debt ceiling once Donald Trump entered office in 2017. Trump, who himself had regularly hectored Republicans to use it against Obama in 2011 and 2013, also suddenly made peace with its existence. This brief window has now closed. In March, Senate Republicans passed a nonbinding internal rule for their caucus to seek spending cuts in exchange for further increases on the debt ceiling. The move signaled that Republican senators would largely return to their Obama-era hostage-taking strategy to cut government spending.
There is no reason to think that Republicans sincerely care about fiscal discipline. They didn’t wage high-stakes battles with the executive branch to cut government spending when their guy was in the White House. Even beyond Trump, GOP legislators are ignoring deficit hawkery as a defining trait for their own leaders. Elise Stefanik, who won the House GOP vote this week to be the caucus’s number-three leader, ranked substantially lower on conservative think-tank purity-test scorecards than her opponent, Chip Roy. NBC’s Sahil Kapur noted that on the Club for Growth scorecard, Stefanik actually ranked lower than Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, a progressive Democrat.
What matters to the modern Republican Party is the acquisition and maintenance of power. In theory, Democrats care about this, as well, but they try to achieve it through policy achievements that increase their electoral support. The GOP is happy to suppress votes, lean on its structural advantages, and sabotage Democrats in power even if it runs counter to the national interest. Thankfully, after the Obama and Trump years, Democrats have largely wised up: Politico reported that House and Senate Democrats won’t negotiate over a debt-ceiling raise this time.
So if Democrats raise the debt ceiling over the next few months, to what level should they raise it? The Week’s Ryan Cooper proposed raising it to Avogadro’s number, or 6.02214076 × 10(23) dollars. I suggest instead raising the debt ceiling to one googolplex dollars, which is 10(10(1,000)). That should be a sufficiently high figure for federal budgetary purposes: Carl Sagan once noted that a piece of paper that could fit all the zeros in one googolplex would be larger than the known universe. Whether you consider this to be raising the debt ceiling or abolishing it, the practical effect would—and should—be its removal from the field of American politics.
The problem, as always, is the filibuster. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, the Democrats’ would-be fiftieth vote, has ruled out scrapping the 60-vote threshold under any circumstances in hopes of achieving bipartisan solutions that probably don’t exist. He has also thrown cold water on the prospect of using budget reconciliation to bypass the filibuster, after using it to pass the American Rescue Plan two months ago. Enough Republican senators appear unwilling to vote with Democrats to pass a clean debt-ceiling increase. Democrats, for their part, appear unwilling to negotiate a solution.
Suppose, then, that Congress shoots the hostages: Senate Republicans refuse to lend Democrats 10 votes to overcome a filibuster, the clock ticks down to the deadline, and the debt ceiling remains fixed at its current level. What could President Joe Biden do? One option would be to simply ignore the debt ceiling on constitutional grounds. The Fourteenth Amendment plainly states that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”
That is sweeping and unambiguous language, even by constitutional standards. The Atlantic’s Garrett Epps noted in 2011, during the first debt-ceiling showdown, that such a path existed for Obama. “From this language, it’s not hard to argue that the Constitution places both payments on the debt and payments owed to groups like Social Security recipients—pensioners, that is—above the vagaries of congressional politics,” he wrote. “These debts have to be paid, the argument would be, in full, on time, without question. If Congress won’t pay them, then the executive must.”
Failing that, Biden could simply direct Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to mint the trillion-dollar platinum coin and deposit it in the government’s coffers. But there appears to be ample support among congressional Democrats for scrapping the Republicans’ favored hostage-taking mechanism altogether. In 2019, five top Democratic senators formally proposed the debt ceiling’s abolition as Congress negotiated with Trump over its most recent extension. And long before that, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer publicly said, in 2011, that the Fourteenth Amendment option “should be explored” in future debt-ceiling showdowns. There is no time like the present.