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Mitch McConnell Is Getting Away With a Dangerous Debt Ceiling Gambit

The Senate minority leader is happy to risk economic collapse if it helps the GOP in the midterm elections.

A close up of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

There he goes again. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader and the GOP’s nihilist in chief, has a characteristically cynical plan for the debt ceiling. The Senate minority leader has insisted that he and his party will not lift a finger to raise the debt limit as the deadline to do so looms. Democrats and Republicans have joined together for years to forestall this crisis—it’s necessary to prevent the government from going into a catastrophic default. 

But no longer, it seems. In recent years, debt ceiling brinksmanship has always incurred a political cost on the party driving the country to the brink. That McConnell has recruited 46 GOP senators into his credit-default Suicide Squad suggests something different is afoot: These debt ceiling dealings are best understood as a key plank in the GOP’s midterm strategy, in which McConnell hopes that the GOP can retake congressional majorities and get back to doing what he does best: Nothing. 

In the past, one might have expected McConnell—as I did earlier this year—to mask his decision to threaten America with a debt ceiling breach in ideological terms, fearmongering about the size of the deficit and Democratic spending plans as an excuse not to vote in favor of raising the debt ceiling. This would certainly be in keeping with McConnell’s long-standing approach to Washington politics. But these perennial debt ceiling events have always invited lawmakers to be cynical. Raising the debt ceiling may sound like Congress is giving itself permission to spend new money, but in reality, it only reflects a commitment to make good on past spending to which Congress has already agreed—such as the massive corporate tax cut McConnell helped shepherd through the Senate four years ago. The confusion over this fact has always permitted lawmakers to indulge themselves in some deficit-hawk kayfabe, in which various members grandstand about spending. In the end, the votes to avert destruction are always there. In fact, Mitch McConnell once said that he had a duty to the country to be one of those votes.

But McConnell is playing a different game entirely now, and crafting new rules on the fly. “Let me make it perfectly clear. The country must never default. The debt ceiling will need to be raised. But who does that depends on who the American people elect,” McConnell told Punchbowl News. This is a novel and bizarre approach to the American political system. In McConnell’s version of things, because the Democrats occupy the White House and have razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate, they are solely responsible for finding the votes to raise the debt ceiling, as if that was somehow the will of the people, who now—by McConnell’s reckoningshould pay an economic price for not electing more Democratic senators. 

This is all patently absurd, but McConnell is getting away with it because his strategy is based, correctly, on the fecklessness of Democrats and the internecine fracas over what parts of the Biden agenda, in the form of an infrastructure bill and a budget reconciliation package, get passed. By withholding GOP support, McConnell would force Democrats to raise the debt ceiling via budget reconciliation, the same process they’ll need to pass their $3.5 trillion spending bill. Democrats already face a difficult challenge keeping moderates and progressives on board with both bills; if a must-pass debt ceiling rise to avoid default gets rammed into the mess, the already fragile Democratic coalition could split further. 

As The Washington Post’s Paul Kane wrote last week, McConnell’s aim is to “keep GOP hands clean of all this new spending in advance of the 2022 midterm elections.” The fact that the media takes this at face value—remember, the debt ceiling rise accounts only for money that Congress has already agreed to spend—is a big win for the minority leader, as no one is throwing the deficit-widening Trump tax cuts back in McConnell’s face. That this also adds considerable discord to the Democratic agenda without his having to stake out any real position on the particulars of that agenda is an added bonus. 

It’s worth dwelling on the risks involved. If Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling and the United States defaults on its credit, most experts agree that it would result in a globe-spanning economic downturn. The U.S. economy, still in its frail post-Covid recovery, would plunge into recession. A report by Moody’s chief economist Mark Zandi found that six million people could lose their jobs in a crash that would wipe out as much as $15 trillion in household wealth—and this report may actually understate the risks. The global economy, which depends on the stability of U.S. Treasury bonds, could crater, creating a situation at least as bad as the 2008 economic collapse. 

This is, perhaps, the perfect moment for McConnell to run this debt ceiling gambit. He benefits from a media that struggles with the abstract concept of a debt ceiling, and from a Democratic Party that’s currently struggling to agree to enact its own agenda. The most brilliant stroke may be that while McConnell is absolutely correct that Democrats don’t need GOP votes to avert the crisis, he knows that they’re struggling mightily with intraparty friction, and loading Democratic lawmakers down with an addition burden could magnify all the tensions that currently threaten to boil over. According to Politico, polling offers McConnell an additional boost: The latest Politico/Morning Consult poll indicates that “more voters would blame Democrats than Republicans if the U.S. were to default on its debt.”  

McConnell has crafted a devious political strategy to help retake Congress: Force the Democrats to do everything, even things that have (mostly) been done in a bipartisan manner for years. Then attack them for doing it, all while pretending to be the very model of strong fiscal sense. It’s a reckless move: He’s risking the global economy, all in the hopes of winning a few seats. Democrats, of course, can act unilaterally to stop this, anytime they want. The fact that it remains an open question whether they will is the reason McConnell has the unique opportunity to make this dangerous gamble.