Democrats Can and Should Play Offense on the Debt Ceiling

by Neil H. Buchanan
As of a few minutes ago, it appears that there will be no government shutdown tonight, with the Senate set to approve a stopgap measure to fund the government all the way into early December.  Woo hoo!!  Seriously, that is good news, mostly because it means that the American people (and especially federal employees who are deemed "nonessential") will not be forced to suffer through another pointless and damaging shutdown.
Analytically, it also means that we might now be able to talk about the impending debt ceiling crisis without having to explain that shutdowns and debt defaults are very much not the same thing.  The former are bad but containable and somewhat remediable.  The latter would be catastrophic.  Given how incompetent even the most elite news reporters are in discussing these issues, however, it is always bad when the two issues become newsworthy at the same time.

I thus come to you today to talk about the debt ceiling.  How many times has that happened?  I am guessing more than a hundred, as a low-ball estimate.  In any case, today's discussion takes place against the backdrop of the Treasury Department's latest estimate that the "drop-dead date" for the debt ceiling will be October 18.
Why is that news, and for that matter, why is it merely an estimate?  Well, for reasons not worth going into here, even though the government officially hit the official limit on debt several weeks ago -- on the very date that the Republicans' most recent suspension of the debt ceiling ended -- we never quite know when the real, final date is that Treasury's delaying tactics will run their course.  Treasury's best current guess is October 18, but even they are not certain.  There is, however, most assuredly a date when we will all drop dead, if Congress does not act in time.

Having made the stakes clear, my purpose today is to make the case explicitly that the debt ceiling can and should be a winning political issue for the Democrats.  As usual, Republicans think that they can put the Democrats in a political bind by forcing Democrats to vote to increase the debt ceiling, and Democrats have once again decided to cower in a defensive crouch while hoping that something good will happen to make it all go away.
This must stop, and as I wrote just a moment ago, the good news is that Democrats can make hay out of this situation, if only they would stop whimpering.

In my Verdict column last week, "The 'Americans Are Not Deadbeats Act': Republicans Have Given Democrats a Gilded Political Path to Killing the Debt Ceiling," I renewed my argument that Democrats should take the opportunity to recast the debt ceiling as a matter of national responsibility -- even pride.  This is, to say the least, counter-intuitive.

Even though nearly everyone in the world -- people as well as corporations (which are also people, as Mitt Romney once reminded us with such exquisite tone-deafness) -- has borrowed money for completely sensible reasons, Republicans know that people possess a DNA-level revulsion to the notion of debt.  The political syllogism was so simple that it could have been laid out by Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer: "Debt bad; raising debt ceiling make debt big; raising debt ceiling bad."

The current version of Republicans' political gamesmanship involves trying to force Democrats who are up for reelection in 2022 (all House members, of course, plus supposedly vulnerable senators like Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire) to vote to increase the debt ceiling.  Our unfrozen friend apparently is then supposed to say: "Hassan bad!!"
Republicans are so committed to this strategy that all 50 Senate Republicans even filibustered the attempt to increase the debt ceiling this week, which is odd even on its own terms.  After all, if they had not filibustered (or at least if they had allowed ten of their number to vote for cloture), that would have resulted in Democrats voting not on a procedural measure but actually to increase the debt ceiling.  As it stands, Hassan and the other targeted Democrats never voted to increase the debt ceiling because Republicans prevented them from being able to do so -- and they most definitely would have done so.

That is weird, but the one thing that I never doubt is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's superpower: appealing to people's lizard brains.  If he thinks it makes sense to have Republicans vote unanimously against cloture, I am willing to believe that there is some cynical logic at work.  Or, as former Republican insider Bruce Bartlett aptly put it in The Washington Post last week: "The debt limit fight is a scam. The GOP counts on voters not knowing that."

My point, then, is not that McConnell is wrong in thinking that appealing to voters' -- and, probably more importantly, reporters' and not-particularly-smart Democrats' -- anti-debt instincts is a savvy strategy.  It clearly has worked for his side many times in the past.  But merely because a political strategy has succeeded on many occasions does not mean that it cannot be defeated.  Sometimes, the strategy simply becomes outdated (opposition to same-sex marriage, for example), and sometimes the other side comes up with a better strategy.  And there ought to be a winning counter-strategy for Democrats, because the Republicans' argument is completely vacuous.

So what would Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer say?  As tempting as it is for Democrats to point out -- completely correctly -- that the debt ceiling needs to be increased to accommodate spending and regressive tax cuts that Republicans rammed through while they were running the show, he would not bother going there.  "If you're explaining, you're losing" is not quite as old as the Upper Paleolithic Age, but it is still vintage political advice.  No one seems to care that Republicans are lying about any of this.

My Verdict column attempts to offer a particular version of the gut-level appeal that Democrats should rally behind.  I offer a few catchy (but admittedly amateur) attempts at sloganeering, suggesting that Democrats pass something called the "Americans Are Not Deadbeats Act," the "America Always Pays Its Bills Law," the “Full Faith and Credit Proviso,” the "Preserving Our Children’s Credit Worthiness Rule," or even the "Democrats Do Not Welsh on America’s Obligations Clause."
No matter the label, I am merely revisiting the call that Professor Dorf and I have made many times (which we would never claim was original to us) to renew what was once called the Gephardt Rule.  That rule simply says that every law that would create the need for the federal government to borrow money (through any combination of tax cuts or spending increases) must also include a clause to authorize such borrowing.  That is, Congress should never be allowed to say anything like this: "We authorize $5 more spending will reducing tax revenue by $2, but we will only allow the government to borrow $4."  That, in a nutshell, is the insanity of a separate debt ceiling statute.

Even that, however, does not quite get at the deeper insanity -- which is also where the lizard-brain aspect of this comes in -- because it misses how the timing of this works.  After all, it might seem plausible to respond: "Well, OK, if we only want to increase debt by $4, then we could, say, increase spending by $3 and cut taxes by $1.  Problem solved!"  Which makes it seem as though the debt ceiling is not the core of the problem.

Only when we are clear that it is already too late to go back and change the numbers to fit together is it possible to see what is truly at stake when Congress must increase the debt ceiling.  We already authorized, for example, a hospital to provide a health care procedure on a wounded veteran, but if the bill happens to arrive on or after the debt ceiling's drop-dead date, we are supposedly going to say to the hospital: "Sorry, you're f*cked.  We know you already did this important and expensive procedure in reliance on the federal government's never having defaulted on any of its obligations, even for a day, but this is your unlucky day!"

Although I admit that I am quite pleased with myself for coming up with what are surely the pithiest political slogans ever, and although I honestly do believe that the Gephardt Rule is the one and only way to run a government, my point here is that the Democrats do not necessarily need to take any of my advice on those particulars.  They do, however, need to make the debt ceiling fight a matter of visceral principle: "Debt bad?  F*cking people over worse!"

Could I be wrong?  Maybe.  As I noted above, no one can challenge Mitch McConnell's instincts for pure, mindless gutter politics.  Perhaps he would have a clever retort that the DC press would eat up, or maybe Democrats are not capable of blanketing the Sunday political shows with a disciplined message.
I can say this much, at least: What Democrats have doing for the past decade is certainly not working.  After Barack Obama's disastrous negotiations with Republican hostage-takers in 2011, the only reason that we have not had a debt ceiling meltdown is that Obama stopped blinking, and Republicans calculated that they would take some or all of the blame for not increasing the debt ceiling, because they were in the majority in one or both houses of Congress.
McConnell has now calculated that Democrats, because they control the political branches, will be blamed.  And he is probably not wrong.  That means that Democrats have three choices: (1) Fail to increase the debt ceiling, and deal with the apocalypse that ensues, (2) Increase the debt ceiling, and continue to be ashamed of it, or (3) Do the right thing, and make it clear that it is the right thing -- for the simplest of reasons.

Republicans (and some Democrats) like to invoke folksy nonsense about how, "in tough times, families sit around the kitchen table and make hard choices about that they can afford.  The government must do the same thing."  That is utter crap, not only because the government is not a family but because the government should do the exact opposite of what families do when times are tough.  However, it sounds good, which is why Republicans run with it.
But the Democrats' position sounds good, too, and in exactly the same way: "Even when times are tough, you have to pay your bills; and not only because you know that you'll be in trouble if you don't, but because you know that you shouldn't break your word.  Neither should your government."

Again, I like the idea of adopting the Gephardt Rule, and I would be even happier if people would understand that the debt ceiling is a pernicious and dangerous law.  I would be delighted if the Democrats adopted any of my slogans.  All of that, however, is secondary to the fundamental truth that Democrats have no choice but to go on offense in this debate.  Fortunately, their gut-level appeal is powerful.  Why not try it out?  It might work.