The Limits of Political Framing, or: How Many Fig Leaves Can Senator McConnell Create?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Before I proceed to today's brief post, I wanted to point interested readers toward an extremely good series of videos and commentaries at another site.  Two weeks ago, during the height of the debt ceiling craziness, I was contacted by one C.G.P. Grey, a London-based writer/producer of educational materials, who was trying to make sense of the U.S. debt ceiling debate.  He had a great script nearly ready to go, and he was looking for some consultation on some final details.

I am pleased to say that I had some small part in the final result, a video (less than four minutes long) that viewers can find here.  The script is available at Grey's website here.  Given the thousands of words that I have written on this topic, it is downright scary to see how much can be conveyed in so few words.  Not satisfied with doing me one better on the debt ceiling, Grey also managed to write a single blog post that bested me on two of my favorite topics: the inanity of the Big Coin option, and the even more depressing inanity of modern news reporting.  Seriously, treat yourself to a great read!  (Disclaimer: He links to one of my Dorf on Law posts, but only in passing.)

I should also mention that I was convinced of Mr. Grey's bona fides after watching an educational video that he produced some time ago, in which he explained the difference between the United Kingdom, Great Britain, England, and the whole mess of "commonwealth this" and "sun never sets on that" stuff that I have never been able to completely follow  It took him all of five minutes and fifteen seconds to explain all of that, here.

Having said all of that, I will use the remainder of this post to add just a few words about the increasingly odd politics of the debt ceiling debate, here in the Washington of President Obama's second term.  The Washington Post reported on the details of the House bill yesterday (which is either already law, or will be soon), describing how the debt ceiling debate has now been delayed until after the debates over sequestration (deadline on March 1, although that has already been delayed once) and preventing a government shutdown (which has a hard deadline on March 27, but which can also be delayed with another continuing resolution that changes nothing).

If I understand it correctly (and, given the odd reasoning in all of this, that is not guaranteed), the House Republicans refused to increase the debt ceiling directly -- or, Heaven forbid, repeal it.  Instead, they agreed to "suspend" it until May, allowing borrowing to resume in the amounts that this same Congress approved in its current continuing resolution.  When that suspension ends, the debt ceiling will be automatically updated to the level that it has then reached due to that borrowing, and the Treasury will once again be forced to resume "extraordinary measures" -- unless an actual solution is found.

How is this not an increase in the debt ceiling?  Well, remember that this is a political culture in which spending increases can be called tax cuts merely by recharacterizing spending programs as "tax expenditures," and where candidates are excoriated for "voting to raise taxes" simply by refusing to vote for tax cuts.  The bar, in other words, is pretty low when it comes to political charades and word games.  House Republicans have now voted to eliminate the debt ceiling entirely for three months, then reimpose it at a higher level, all the while telling themselves that they have not "voted to raise the debt ceiling," which they have sworn never, ever to do.

My first thought upon reading about this was, "Hey, if that's what it takes to convince them to stop playing games with the full faith and credit of the United States, it's a pretty harmless game.  Let's just do that as often as necessary."  I then remembered that we have been someplace very much like here before.  In the last debt ceiling hysteria, in July/August of 2011, the final deal involved another bizarre misdirection play: Passing a law that allowed the President to increase the debt ceiling, then giving the House an opportunity to pass nonbinding resolutions disapproving of the terrible thing that the President just did.  Again, the House voted to allow the debt ceiling to increase, but they did so by making it look like the President had done it.  Voila!  Promises kept.

It is depressingly possible, however, that each of these moves has a one-use-only provision.  Recall that when the more recent crisis came along, Republicans openly laughed at the President's suggestion that they do the same thing in late 2012 that they had done in August 2011.  There is, therefore, no reason to think that this new move will be their preferred escape hatch next time.  At that point, they will almost surely insist that doing so would be substantively equivalent to increasing the debt ceiling -- which it is, of course -- and that they will never agree to do that.

The maneuver in the Summer of 2011 was attributed to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who also brokered the New Year's Eve tax deal with Vice President Biden.  I have not seen anything to indicate whether McConnell was behind the new gimmick, but it certainly fits his style of maneuvering.

All of which suggests that Senator McConnell might be the only thing that is preventing the House Republicans from making good on their threats to bring down the economy over a meaningless promise.  With McConnell up for re-election next year, and Tea Partiers already promising a primary challenge (in a state that elected the absurd Rand Paul in 2010, even though -- or perhaps because? -- they knew of his execrable views on civil rights), McConnell's skills will really be put to the test.  Can he continue to invent new fig leaves to allow Republicans to bow to reality, without admitting that they are doing so?  If McConnell cannot step up to the plate, who will?  And if no one can, will the business interests who have backed the Republicans finally find that, when they bought the House of Representatives (and the state governments that gerrymandered them into the majority), they paid for their own demise?

Whatever happens, I am pretty sure that C.G.P. Grey will describe it more elegantly than I can.