As the Debt Ceiling Takes Yet Another Nap

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In a Dorf on Law post on Wednesday, Professor Dorf wrote that "[r]eports of the debt ceiling's demise are, alas, exaggerated."  Although the bill to suspend the debt ceiling did ultimately pass the Senate (despite last-minute drama, due to a filibuster attempt by the irrepressible Freshman Senator from Texas, a Mr. Ted Cruz), Professor Dorf correctly points out that the lack of brinksmanship in the House should give us no basis for thinking that The Budget Wars Are Over, or whatever similar headlines various press outlets have trotted out.

The larger political point is that the latest suspension of the debt ceiling is entirely a temporary tactical defeat for the Tea Party, not a matter of having decided that the issue is a dud for them.  At this point, it appears that the Republican non-nihilists simply tired of being pushed around by their more extreme cousins.  One reason -- beyond the obvious point that Republicans have merely decided to put another fight over the debt ceiling off until after the midterm elections -- might be that the craziest people just keep getting crazier.

For example, one of my former students forwarded a news article from BuzzFeed about a truly weird email that was sent recently to House Republicans' internal email accounts.  The story is so bizarre that I despair of even trying to summarize it, so I encourage readers to click on the link and drink in the insanity.  The bottom line is that a person or group somehow gained access to closely guarded email addresses of House Republicans, threatening political retribution against anyone who dares to vote to increase the debt ceiling.

Perhaps the non-nihilist Republicans will respond to all of this by actually refusing to go along with future attempts to use the debt ceiling as a weapon.  Now that Speaker Boehner has started trash-talking the Tea Party, maybe he will use this email stunt against the super-crazies.  According to a business lobbyist quoted in a news article a few days ago, now that the Speaker has shown some spine, "Boehner has told me that in the House caucus meetings there are a lot more guys sitting up straight.  They aren’t sitting in the back with their feet up on the chairs hurling spitballs."

So, there is at least some reason to suspect that the insurrectionists have completely overplayed their hand.  As Professor Dorf pointed out, however, almost all Republicans voted against the debt ceiling suspension.  Even the House Republican who was the named target of the bizarre email noted above still voted against the suspension, and he felt the need to assure BuzzFeed that he did not do so out of fear: "Lankford, who voted no on Boehner’s debt ceiling plan, stressed the email had nothing to do with his decision to vote that way.  'Oh no. No, no, no. No, that’s just some weird outside who knows what,' Lankford said when asked whether the email had any impact on his decision."

It is not, however, clear to me why House Democrats were willing to enable House Republicans to take the easy way out.  The Republican leadership managed to find 28 members (including some who are retiring!) and got them to vote yes, giving the bill the margin of victory.  The rest of the Republicans were allowed to vote no, to protect themselves from political retribution, even though many of them have reportedly adopted a "vote no, hope yes" approach to legislating, by which they hope that their negative votes do not carry the day.

Why are Democrats allowing that to happen?  The short answer is that the consequences of hitting the debt ceiling are too awful to contemplate.  But surely Democrats can figure out a way to force Republicans to cast tough votes publicly.  Of course, doing so would create its own kind of brinksmanship, but Democrats are at least savvy enough politically to figure out a way to make this more painful for Republicans.  Continuing to allow Republicans to scream about the debt ceiling, while quietly letting the adults do the right thing, merely entrenches the craziness.

What about the broader politics, beyond the House of Representatives?  One might have thought that, after almost three years of this nonsense, at least some of the basic facts would have seeped into the consciousnesses of the public and the press.  Most importantly, it should have long since become obvious that the debt ceiling is not about putting a ceiling on debt.  That the debt ceiling would prevent us from paying our already-existing bills, not from incurring future bills, has been said in a million different ways.  At some point, one might have hoped, the public might have rejected the whole show.

And in some sense, the public actually has seen through some of the smoke and mirrors.  One notable fact about the bill that passed this week is that it is another suspension of the debt ceiling, this time through March 15, 2015, to be reinstated at the higher level that the debt will have reached on that date.  When this move was first invented by Senator McConnell early last year, it was easy to deride it for its naked dishonesty: "We will allow Republicans to vote to suspend the debt ceiling, then reinstate it at a higher level, without having them vote to increase the debt ceiling directly!"

By now, however, that pretense has almost completely disappeared.  That BuzzFeed article linked above, for example, repeatedly and matter-of-factly refers to the bill that passed this week as "a debt-limit increase."  No one is being fooled.

On the other hand, even the more sophisticated members of the press still are still confused about what the debt ceiling does.  For example, in the "Vote No, Hope Yes" article in The New York Times linked above, the reporter wrote that House Republicans who voted no to this week's suspension "are also likely to earn higher ratings on conservative scorecards that severely penalize lawmakers who back a debt increase."  A debt increase?!  That is absolutely not what they would have voted for.  Even if the political machinations are becoming more threadbare, therefore, the fundamental misunderstanding about what is really at stake stubbornly refuses to yield.

This is all the more bizarre because the McConnell fig leaf has exposed exactly why the debt ceiling should be completely repealed.  Recall that, after President Obama caved to Republicans in August 2011 by agreeing to immediate spending cuts and (ultimately) the sequester-related cuts, the increase in the debt ceiling was written into the legislation as a dollar amount.  That is, even though it required another bit of smoke and mirrors (having the President increase the debt ceiling, and then allowing the House to vote its non-binding disapproval of the President's horrible, horrible decision), the bill was based on an estimate of how much the debt might rise by the end of 2012.

When that issue was revisited in early 2013 (after a two-month punt, as part of the "fiscal cliff" insanity), Senator McConnell came up with his new sleight of hand, suspending and then reinstating the debt ceiling.  That move was repeated in October 2013, as part of the debt ceiling side of the deal that ended the government shutdown.  And now it has been repeated again.  As a result, for the 25 months from February 2013 through March 2015, there will have been no debt ceiling at all for about 20 of those months.

Not only will this prove again that debt does not rise without limit, even when there is no statutory limit, but it also shows that even Republicans find it simpler not to bother with putting arbitrary numbers on the debt ceiling.  Given the choice between kicking up the number, or simply making the pesky thing go away, Republicans would rather make it go away.  Sounds good to me.