Republicans and the debt ceiling

Good stuff from

Chait: “Debt Ceiling Extortion Is an Attack on Democracy: If Republicans want to cut spending, they should win an election and do it themselves.”

The coverage of this demand has been consumed with the practical consequences of a potential default. What has gone largely unremarked upon is the blatant violation of democratic legitimacy this hostage scheme entails. After all, while it’s true Biden won narrowly, he did win an election, he did carry both chambers of Congress in 2020, and he did spell out his domestic program during the campaign.

Republicans, on the other hand, lost ground in the Senate and have not won the presidency. They wish to use their narrow control of one chamber now to force the entire elected government to accede to sweeping domestic change that almost nobody campaigned on, or even mentioned, last fall.

The Republican Party is plotting a series of cuts — to programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — without even going through the pretense of obtaining a mandate. Rather than campaign on a platform of shrinking social-insurance programs, they ignored this question almost entirely, failed to win either the presidency or the Senate, and have responded to this defeat by attempting to force through their radical program anyway by exploiting a quirk in federal law…

When they were passing the Trump tax cuts, virtually the entire Republican Party, all the way out to Susan Collins, chose to believe Hassett’s prediction rather than listen to the non-voodoo economists who predicted significant revenue loss. This position conveniently allowed Republicans to avoid the difficult work of finding offsetting cuts to pay for their tax-cut spree.

Suppose, instead, that they had been forced to pay for the tax cuts. And suppose they informed the public that, in the event Hassett’s idiosyncratic supply-side analysis proved wrong once again, they would respond by demanding cuts to popular entitlement programs. What are the odds the tax cuts could have passed Congress? Or, if they had, how would the midterm elections have turned out?

The current round of hyperventilating about the deficit they helped to create is simply the implied funding mechanism slipping into place. First they deny that any trade-off exists, knowing full well that the trade-off would make their policies utterly toxic. Then, rather than take responsibility for the choice, they put a gun to the head of the next Democratic president and order him to do it for them, upon pain of melting down the economy.

The entire two-step is a way to get around the problem that the voters absolutely refuse to abide their fiscal priorities…

The actual power dynamics suggest Biden has a much better chance to prevail through executive action than through Congress. The only body with the power to block his unilateral moves is the Supreme Court. Yes, the Supreme Court is controlled by fairly partisan Republicans, who probably would like to see Biden forced to pay a ransom to their party’s congressional wing. But if Biden acts unilaterally on the cusp of a debt-ceiling crisis, it will be far too late to revive any ransom negotiations. The only options the Court will be able to choose between on the eve of insolvency would be to allow Biden to avert a crisis or to plunge into the crisis. There is very little in Brett Kavanaugh’s background to suggest a taste for unleashing global economic chaos out of some esoteric commitment to a countertextual reading of the United States Platinum and Gold Bullion Coin Act of 1995.

One oft-forgotten lesson of modern history is how easily exertions of executive power go from silly to banal. The idea Donald Trump could build a border wall after Congress explicitly decided not to fund one seemed preposterous, until he did it. As Josh Barro points out, the “extraordinary measures” that the Treasury Department now uses routinely in the run-up to debt ceiling limits — those measures are being implemented right now — were once considered controversial and more-than-plausibly illegal. Biden has tools that, on their face, are more legally defensible.

None of Biden’s executive actions are foolproof. They are all far more likely to succeed than finding a mutually agreeable ransom payment…

The Republican penchant for extortion methods is a natural consequence of the party’s elite’s deeply unpopular fiscal-policy agenda. Unlike the mainstream center-right parties throughout the democratic world, all of which accepted the postwar welfare state, the Republican Party has never truly come to terms with the legitimacy of the New Deal. They consider the Democrats’ defense of entitlement programs “demagoguery,” and they consider progressive taxation little better than mob rule, likening it with revealing frequency to Hitler’s treatment of the Jews.

The conservative movement’s refusal to accommodate the public’s preference for a welfare state financed by progressive taxation has made it a fertile ground for authoritarianism. Trump is just one manifestation of this desire by Republican elites to get around the public’s refusal to endorse their core economic-policy commitments. Their regular use of hostage threats is another.

Great stuff!

And historian extraordinaire, Eric Foner, on why they Democrats should push the 14th amendment option:

Section Four was the Republicans’ response. While the language is certainly infelicitous (surely Congress could have found better wording than declaring it illegal to “question” the validity of the national debt), the historical context makes its purpose clear. In the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, Congress began the nation’s first large experiment in interracial democracy, granting the right to vote to African American men in all the former Confederate states except Tennessee. This propelled Republicans to control of governments throughout the South. But Republicans feared that at some future time, former Confederates might return to power there. Their congressional representatives might join Northern Democrats in repudiating all or part of the national debt while honoring the Confederate one (this latter possibility was explicitly prohibited by Section Four).

The nation needed to be made “safe from the domination of traitors,” declared Representative James Ashley, Republican of Ohio, “safe from repudiation.” The 14th Amendment would help accomplish these goals. Whatever one thinks of Civil War-era fiscal policy, the amendment’s language is mandatory, not permissive — the validity of the public debt “shall not be questioned.” Today, over a century and a half after the amendment’s ratification, this promise is no longer considered an “extraordinary guarantee”; it is an essential attribute of a modern economy.

Our Constitution is not self-enforcing. The 14th Amendment concludes by empowering Congress to implement its provisions. But if the current House of Representatives abdicates this responsibility, throwing the nation into default by refusing to raise the debt limit, President Biden should act on his own, taking steps to ensure that the federal government meets its financial obligations, as the Constitution requires.


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