Column: On the debt-ceiling crisis, take it from moderate Republicans: Be afraid, be very afraid
A group of moderate Republicans and former Republicans in Washington who call themselves the Concerned — as in, for the state of their party and the country — are really concerned these days.
Some are even more than concerned. “This really scares me,” said one man in the group’s Zoom meet-up this week.
That was Bill Hoagland, who for a quarter-century was a top budget advisor to Senate Republican leaders — from the Reagan era, through Newt Gingrich’s “revolution,” to the dawn of the tea party — and now is a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center. What has him and other longtime political and policy actors so troubled is the current standoff between the newly empowered House Republican majority and President Biden over the essential act of raising the nation’s debt limit.
This periodic task — increasing how much the Treasury can borrow — simply allows the government to keep paying its bills for commitments that both parties have made over many years. It does not involve new spending, as Republicans would have you believe.
Ideally, we’d get rid of the limit; no other developed country has one. But because Congress won’t ax it, lawmakers should at least raise it by quick, bipartisan accord. Instead, Republicans set conditions for their votes — when a Democrat is in the White House.
Conventional wisdom holds that we’ve seen this movie before, that once again the nation will go to the brink of default but not over the cliff, that cooler heads will prevail. The Concerned are more pessimistic, foreseeing at least a short-lived default that nonetheless would undermine the nation’s economy and the globe’s as well.
Like me, many of these Republicans have closely watched past episodes of brinkmanship over the debt limit. Some, like Hoagland, have been in the middle of them. What makes the gamesmanship today more worrisome is that the players are different: Republicans in the House are more radical than party lawmakers before them, more anti-government, even nihilistic. Shaking things up and never compromising is the whole point for them and for their voters. As one of the Concerned told me, “The base wants to blow everything up.”
Given Republicans’ narrow House majority, just a few radicals can block any legislation that Leader-in-Name-Only Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) ultimately might agree to. Remember, it took McCarthy a humiliatingly historic 15 House votes to wrangle enough Republican support to get elected speaker, and yet we have to count on him to unite his party on the debt limit and avoid an economic cataclysm?
There’s another reason to fear what House Republicans might do: An unusually large number of them, 52%, have come to Congress only in the last four years. The novices have shown by their public statements that they don’t understand the federal budget or the debt limit. Even as they call for deep budget cuts, they don’t volunteer much in the way of specifics beyond putting a target on what one called “woke and weaponized bureaucrats.”
Veteran Republicans who know better (looking at you, Mr. Speaker) cynically echo the vague rhetoric about easy-peasy cuts, thus misleading the public. They’re making false promises about budget balancing that they know they couldn’t achieve even if they could rely only on Republican votes for passage.
Also, the newer Republican lawmakers haven’t experienced how their party, when it previously controlled the House, emerged the loser in nearly every debt-limit crisis and government shutdown it provoked, as adjudged by polls, pundits and even party colleagues. They weren’t there in 2011, for example, when tea party Republicans caused a debt-limit crisis that resulted in the first downgrading of the U.S. credit rating and, consequently, billions of dollars in higher interest on the nation’s borrowing — interest payments that only added to the debt.
Yet knowing that history probably wouldn’t sway many of the newcomers anyway. Like their voters, they’d just counter that Republicans of the past gave in too soon. There’s no persuading such ideologues that their stance is both bad policy and bad politics.
The nation bumped up against the existing debt ceiling last month, but Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen is finagling federal accounting with “extraordinary measures” to delay D(efault)-day until perhaps early summer. Meanwhile, McCarthy insists House Republicans will not agree to raise the ceiling unless Democrats first agree to slash spending. (For the record: Raising tax revenues would also bring down annual deficits and the debt.)
Biden, correctly, wants a “clean” bill that simply raises or suspends the limit. He should make it clearer than he has that Democrats are willing to negotiate spending cuts, but only in the regular budget process, which begins in the next couple of months.
The House Republicans want to see a cut of $130 billion in spending for the coming fiscal year (starting in October), and a balanced budget in 10 years. At a time of multitrillion-dollar annual deficits, that goal would be laughable if the ramifications of inevitable failure weren’t so serious — in deepening voters’ disillusionment and, potentially, triggering an economic crisis.
McCarthy says the budget’s perennial big-ticket items — Social Security, Medicare, veterans programs, defense spending and interest on the debt — are off the table. That leaves about 15% of the budget, which covers nearly all other domestic programs. The business-supported Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that those programs — healthcare, air traffic control, infrastructure projects, education and so much more — would have to be cut 85% to meet the Republicans’ goal.
That’s not going to happen, ever. And don’t ask McCarthy and the rest of the House Republicans for their Plan B. They don’t have one.
It gets worse. If the House Republicans were to get what they’re asking for, several of the more militant lawmakers, including former Vice President Mike Pence’s brother, Rep. Greg Pence of Indiana, say they’d still never vote to raise the debt limit.
We all should be concerned. Scared even.
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