The words “debt limit” may make your eyes roll, widen, or just glaze over. But at a moment like this, when it’s seriously unclear whether Congress will raise the limit at which the federal government is legally allowed to go into debt — and avoid likely financial calamity — it might be time to start asking some questions.
Questions like: Why are politicians in Washington at the brink of what one respected financial analyst firm said would be a self-made cataclysmic event that could wipe out a third of the markets nearly immediately?
The answer is simple enough: This is how American politics rolls in 2021.
Said differently, the incentive structures inside of American politics, especially as they pertain to the Republican Party and the demands upon the ruling Democratic Party, got us all to this point.
Yes, there is a lot of hypocrisy. No, a lot of people aren’t being serious. And, hopefully, for those relying on a wobbling COVID economy, one side blinks and it all works out just in time. But for the next few days, expect politicians to act in their own best interest. Now let’s break down what that means exactly.
Republicans have no incentive to do anything
It might be disheartening to hear that any elected public servant may choose to do something that they know is ultimately bad just to win political points. But welcome to modern American politics. At least, welcome to the mind of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
The concept of raising the debt limit is nearly 100 years old. Originally, it was meant to speed up the process of the government approving war bonds, instead of having to approve every single one.
For most of its history, raising the debt ceiling was not that big of a deal. It has been raised at least 80 times since 1960.
Most recently, the debt ceiling was raised when President Trump was in office and McConnell ran the Senate. Not raising the debt ceiling would mean America was in default. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says the county will hit the ceiling sometime in mid-October.
“America must never default — we never have and we never will,” McConnell declared recently. At the same time he said that, though, he also pledged that no Senate Republican would vote to raise the debt ceiling in the coming weeks.
Now that Democrats are back in charge of the House, Senate, and the White House, there is a false discussion inside of the Republican base that raising the debt ceiling has something to do with being more fiscally responsible. In fact, some believe the very notion that there needs to be a routine vote on raising the debt forced a conversation about the national debt. The numbers tell a different story: The nation’s $28 trillion debt has never been higher.
Still, the incentive of the Republicans is to do nothing. At least since the Obama era, a vote to raise the debt ceiling has meant they are going to get slammed among those in their base. (This is a Republican base, by the way, that is less dependent on Wall Street than it is on the cultural concerns of Donald Trump, who is against raising the ceiling now that Democrats are in office.) Further, since Democrats are in charge, Republicans believe that it is Democrats who will be blamed if Washington causes a recession by inaction.
And the Republicans are right about something: Democrats do have a mechanism to fix all of this without a single Republican vote.
Democrats don’t want to take an unpopular vote without Republicans
Democrats know the headlines that will appear on Fox News and in the 2024 Republican campaign for president: Democrats voted along party lines to increase the national debt. (Even though the debt is the debt no matter where the ceiling is at.)
This is why Democrats think the whole thing is unfair politically. Why should they be the ones that have to take a tough vote?
Well, again, that’s because of the political incentives in the system. Democrats have run and branded themselves to those swing voters in the suburbs that they are better managers of the government and its money. Yes, they might raise taxes, but they will at least say why, instead of Republicans offering tax cuts without a specific reason.
Democrats have the majorities they do because of this branding. They may feel obligated to fix the debt issue because they don’t want to lose that branding. But really, it is easy to see how if a Democratic-run Washington causes the government to default, wipe out $15 trillion in wealth and 6 million jobs, then the Republicans have a point: It will directly hurt the Democratic Party.
That is why Democrats may have to use a reconciliation bill to address the debt ceiling. But doing so would likely pass only on party lines because currently, the same reconciliation bill has a $3.5 trillion price tag for other items like climate change and child care that no Republican can stomach. There is another twist: Unlike other resolutions that just suspend a debt limit until a certain date, if Democrats use reconciliation to pass it, they are required to name a specific dollar figure as the ceiling, something that is politically toxic.
So when Senator Elizabeth Warren asked a reporter on Wednesday, “Are [Democrats] hostage to Republicans who are threatening to blow up a part of the economic system because they want to do that for politics?”
Yes, that is exactly right.
The Senate is broken
While understanding the dynamic of both major political parties is vital, there is another point about American politics that is not discussed enough: The US Senate is broken.
The only reason raising the debt ceiling is even in doubt is because of the Senate rule that basically everything needs 60 votes to pass (reconciliation bills are one of the exceptions).
So as it stands, the Senate has a House-passed bill from this week that funds the government for another three months, suspends the debt limit, and adds funds for hurricane relief and for Afghan refugees. But that bill needs 60 votes in the Senate, which means all Democrats and at least 10 Republicans must support it. At the moment, no Republican is on board.
If majorities ran the Senate, or if the 60 vote filibuster were used sparingly, this would not be an issue at all structurally, just politically. After all, the Senate Democratic majority could just pass the House bill now, even if it would get them criticized.