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Why Are Democrats Inviting Republicans to Hold Them Hostage Over the Debt Ceiling?

Those nostalgic for the Obama years may soon get to relive the toxic brinkmanship that periodically threatened the global economy during that era.

Chuck Schumer smiles as he leaves a press conference.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Congress votes from time to time on whether or not to collapse the American economy. So far, lawmakers haven’t actually voted in favor of economic ruin. But for some inexplicable reason, they decide to keep having the vote over and over again, providing free leverage to opposition parties to extract policy concessions in exchange for staving off widespread hardship. Now Democrats appear ready to keep this indefensible cycle going.

This dead-man’s switch for American financial stability is the debt ceiling, an archaic mechanism by which Congress allows the Treasury to borrow money for spending that Congress already authorized. As I noted in May, and as countless other commentators have noted before me, refusing to raise the debt ceiling doesn’t actually lower the federal debt. What a refusal would do, however, is force the United States to default on its national debt, throwing the financial system—and the overall economy—into chaos.

Senate Democrats are planning to omit a debt-ceiling increase in the forthcoming budget measure that’s set to be unveiled in the coming days, according to a Politico report on Wednesday. Thanks to arcane Senate procedures, that measure can’t be filibustered. Instead, according to the news outlet, Democrats are “looking to a short-term funding bill designed to avert a government shutdown at the end of September as the next opportunity for debt limit action, one top lawmaker said—an approach that would require Republican support.”

I admit I wasn’t optimistic enough to expect that congressional Democrats would eliminate the debt ceiling entirely or at least raise it to some insurmountable number. (I proposed one googolplex dollars as a good starting point.) My assumption was that they’d perhaps kick the can down the road and suspend it for a few more years. The natural expectation is that Democrats would remember the debt-ceiling crises during the Obama years well enough to avoid them again. Instead, they’re not only welcoming hostage-taking by Republicans but effectively handing over the hostages in advance.

The result is a strange incongruity where Senate Democrats are ruling out negotiations and concessions on the debt ceiling while simultaneously making them possible. “When you incur bills, you pay the bills,” Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, the Senate Finance Committee chair, told Politico. “And now we’ve got all these ideas like: ‘Well, we really have to deal with Medicare and Social Security on this.’ That’s stall-ball. I went to school on a basketball scholarship, and I know what stall-ball is.” Wyden’s metaphor is more apt than he may realize: In a successful effort to make college basketball games less obstructive and more productive, the NCAA added a shot clock in the mid-1980s.

Republicans are sticking to their guns. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared outright that the GOP won’t support a debt-ceiling increase, claiming that Democrats’ spending plans had created a “partisan debt bomb” in the first place. “Let me make something perfectly clear: If they don’t need or want our input, they won’t get our help,” he said on the Senate floor on Thursday. “They won’t get our help with the debt limit increase that these reckless plans will require. I could not be more clear. They have the ability. They control the White House, they control the House, they control the Senate.”

Some GOP lawmakers left open the possibility that they would support a debt-ceiling increase in exchange for spending cuts, a move that would take Congress back to the hostage-taking and brinkmanship of the Obama years. But at least one Republican senator sounded uneasy. “I don’t think there are going to be any Republican votes to increase the debt limit without some structural reforms,” Texas Senator John Cornyn told Politico. “So I think if the Democrats are going to pass it, they ought to stick it on reconciliation.”

Why would Democrats attach the debt ceiling to a separate bill in just under two months? The best-case scenario is that President Joe Biden plans simply to declare the debt ceiling to be unconstitutional and disregard it, perhaps by noting that the Fourteenth Amendment unequivocally states that the “validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned.” But it’s more likely that Senate Democrats want to ensure that the GOP doesn’t force a government shutdown next month by combining it with what they see as a must-pass measure.

Look, it’s one thing to be in this situation when the GOP actually controls the House or Senate and its cooperation is unavoidable. But it’s unforgivable when Democrats control all of Washington and they still want to negotiate over economic collapse with Donald Trump’s Republican Party. This is the same party where some members welcomed a coup attempt in January to overthrow the republic and keep Trump in power. This is the same party where more than a few key figures are undermining Covid-19 vaccinations out of what appears to be partisan spite. Anyone betting that the GOP wouldn’t torpedo the American economy on the off-chance that it can blame it on Democrats has more faith in the Republican Party than it deserves.

Politico does not explicitly say who in the Senate Democratic caucus is responsible for this strategy, but it points some clear fingers in an obvious direction. The news outlet obliquely noted that excluding the debt-ceiling increase is “expected to placate” moderate Democratic senators like Montana’s Jon Tester and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who both voted against one under the Trump administration. It also noted that Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, who recently told Senate Democratic leaders that she would choose her August vacation over a make-or-break vote on the budget reconciliation bill, is already uncomfortable with that bill’s $3.5 trillion price tag.

None of this three-dimensional chess would be necessary if it weren’t for the filibuster. Without it, Democrats could keep the government open and avoid a national default with their 50–50 Senate majority and Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote. And yet it persists, thanks to those same moderate Democratic senators. Prioritizing the filibuster over major investments in American infrastructure, a much-need voting rights bill, or a January 6 commission is bad enough. Choosing a Senate procedural trick over the basic and fundamental functions of American governance is beyond the pale.