Democrats & Debt Limit: Playing Political Games

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) looks down the hall after speaking to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., July 20, 2021. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

Whether the statutory limit on federal debt serves any useful purpose is a good question — it does not seem to have exerted any downward pressure at all on the size of that debt, even as it occasionally risks an economically harmful default — but it’s not the question before Congress now. Neither party wants to end the limit, and a clear majority including members of both parties think that, given the trajectory of federal spending, it should be raised. The division concerns how it should be raised.

Democrats say that both parties should cooperate in raising it, as they did when President Trump was in office. It’s a convenient version of the history that leaves out the fact that they got Republicans to concede some of their spending priorities in return. When Congress raised the limit in 2019, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer started their joint statement thus: “Today, a bipartisan agreement has been reached. . . .” They were “pleased to have secured robust funding for critical domestic priorities in this agreement.”

In this Congress, Democrats want to pass a gigantic increase in spending and taxes on a party-line vote, using the “budget reconciliation” process that avoids filibusters. No negotiations with Republicans are taking place. There is nothing improper in a party’s using the budget rules to get its way. But since Democrats have decided to pursue this option, it is entirely reasonable for Republicans to respond that they should use those rules to raise the debt limit, too.

Which brings us to the real crux of the matter. Democrats don’t want a party-line vote to raise the debt ceiling by an eye-grabbing number because they fear it will be used against them in attack ads. They also don’t want to have to spend time voting on amendments, some of them potentially politically damaging. It’s for these reasons that Democrats chose not to put a debt-limit increase in their reconciliation bill. Republicans, naturally, want the attack-ad opportunities and the votes.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has made the Democratic bind a little tighter by offering Republican help in passing a short-term extension of the debt limit. Democrats took it, and some of them are even saying that Republicans blinked. But the extension into December advances McConnell’s goals. It reduces the odds of default, takes away a Democratic excuse for not taking the time to pass their own long-term debt-limit increase, and pops the Democratic trial balloon of weakening the filibuster to pass a debt-limit increase. But the short-term increase in the debt limit that McConnell will expedite would not accommodate the major increase in the debt that the Democrats’ spending plans would require.

The debate over a long-term extension has been pushed two months closer to the midterms. It is a purely political scuffle. Democrats have several options for avoiding default. The Republicans have precedent on their side and, more important, the numbers to make them choose one.

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