It’s said that the conventional definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results. But what do you call someone who spends their time writing about insane people bent on repeating their insane mistakes, even though that person knows full well that they’ve failed in each and every one of their previous attempts to persuade the aforementioned twonks to stop the madness? Well, for now, you can call that person “me,” because here I am once again, red flags aloft and klaxons screaming, to warn about the potential disaster if Congress fails to raise, or preferably abolish, the debt ceiling. Abolishing the debt ceiling is a thing that lawmakers should have done a long time ago. They will have another chance to fix this in the upcoming lame-duck session. And they almost certainly won’t.
The midterm elections may have broken for Democrats in surprising ways, but they’re ending on very bad terms for those of us who’d prefer to avoid the apocalyptic results of a debt ceiling breach. The GOP will soon be in control of the House and will have to furnish the requisite number of votes to form a majority (presumably with all available Democrats) to stave off debt ceiling doomsday. The tight margins may yield enough votes, but this isn’t a particularly great era for “reasonable Republicans,” and so the worst-case scenario remains on the table. Unless, of course, Congress acts fast and does the deed during the upcoming lame-duck session.
But as The New Republic’s Grace Segers explained this week, the lame duck is already going to be action-packed. There are already a ton of legislative tasks that lawmakers want to try to speed through before the next Congress is sworn in, and different lawmakers attach different levels of priority to each item on their to-do list. I hate to get in the way of everyone’s particular hopes and dreams, but I must: The big thing Democrats need to do in the next few weeks is solve this looming crisis—again, preferably by abolishing the debt ceiling.
TNR readers are probably already familiar with the vagaries of the debt ceiling, but journalistic convention demands that I now furnish an “explainer,” so feel free to skip this if you are not one of the clowns currently sitting in Congress. Congress’s job is to spend taxpayer money. It does this by passing laws and allocating funds. And then, because we’re ridiculous, the legislative branch must, from time to time, affirm that it’ll honor those commitments that get laid on the nation’s balance sheet. This activity is called “raising the debt ceiling.”
Despite what you may have heard, it doesn’t add to or create any new debt. It’s just a promise to pay the bills. And it’s an important promise because if we fail to raise the debt ceiling, it could cause a default of our sovereign credit, and because a lot of the world’s economy is tethered to our own, a default could send a destructive shock wave throughout the global financial system.
It seems nuts that someone gave our ridiculous Congress an “ECONOMY GO BOOM” button, but for years everything went off without a hitch. Whenever the debt ceiling came up, lawmakers would give grandstanding speeches about the other party’s spending priorities, and a few would cast symbolic votes against raising it, knowing all the while that the votes to raise it were secure. What went wrong? Well, when President Barack Obama entered his Grand Bargain era, he raised the notion of using the debt ceiling to negotiate over bigger things. But he forgot that the Republicans were lycanthropic weirdos obsessed with lying about his birthplace and bent on making him a one-term president. So rather than enter into reasonable talks with the White House, the GOP instead enshrined debt ceiling brinkmanship as part of its party’s platform. The Republican Party has increasingly become a home to absolute nitwits with extremely kooky ideas about what might happen if the debt ceiling is breached.
Frankly, it’s nigh on deranged that Democrats didn’t abolish the debt ceiling during these past two years when they had full control of Congress and a mandate to govern. But much like how there aren’t enough Democrats willing to get rid of the filibuster, there haven’t been enough who agree that bringing a loaded gun into the chamber and debating whether it should be fired straight into the face of the global economy is a bad idea.
President Joe Biden, however, had a front-row seat to the debt ceiling chaos of the Obama administration, and he has wisely called for—wait, hold on, what the absolute fuck: It says here that Biden apparently “opposes eliminating the debt limit altogether as a means of averting future confrontations,” on the grounds that doing so would be “irresponsible.” Terrific, Biden has it precisely backward.
Action must be taken now, in the lame-duck session, to put an end to this, because the witching hour is nigh and the GOP will have strong incentives to try to tank the economy. Taking their ability to hold the debt ceiling hostage away from them is a no-brainer. And solutions, from the sublime to the ridiculous, abound: Reinstitute the Gephardt rule; take the advice of The New Republic’s Matt Ford and raise the debt ceiling to one googolplex dollars; mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin and stash it at the Treasury. We could also abolish it outright; we’re just about the only nation with a “debt ceiling,” and no one else on earth has used theirs to create a recurring Saw sequel with the global economy. Or we can do none of those things and Republicans can blow up the economy. Either way, I won’t have to write this again, so at least I have that going for me.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.