In any given year where Republicans control either the House, the Senate, or both, Democratic presidents are treated to the same bizarre, exasperating ritual. If Democrats don’t agree to massive cuts in Medicare, Social Security, or other social programs, Republicans threaten to allow the U.S. to default on its credit by refusing to allow the debt ceiling to be raised. This action would unquestionably precipitate a catastrophic, global economic disaster, sending this nation and most of the developed (and undeveloped) world into a second and probably permanent Great Depression.
Far more consequential than a “government shutdown,” this threat to arbitrarily default on the nation’s existing debts has been wielded cynically and repeatedly since Republicans discovered its utility at energizing and inflaming their ignorant voter base against Democratic policies that benefit people they consider “undeserving,” (i.e., Black people and other racial minorities). The reality that it would inflict economic calamity to every person in this country, more or less across the board, is immaterial to them.
Time and time again this tactic proved to be mere posturing: At the 11th hour, some agreement is suddenly reached, or resolution is suddenly passed, which keeps the U.S. government credit-worthy and assures other nations that yes, we will pay our already-incurred bills. As Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell himself acknowledged, the country’s debt ceiling is a hostage that is worth ransoming, but probably not killing outright. After all, Republicans ultimately have to put food on their families’ tables, too, and most of them prefer living in houses rather than on the streets. But now there’s a big, big problem.
As political scientist and emeritus Norman Ornstein explains in an article written for The Atlantic, the current inhabitants of the Republican House of Representatives are more fanatic, ignorant, and blindly malevolent than even their Tea Party forebearers who pulled this nonsense on President Barack Obama (before they finally backed down) a decade ago. That was an act of intentional sabotage that—even when mitigated at the last minute by the Obama administration reaching a deal with then-House Speaker John Boehner—still resulted in the U.S. credit rating downgraded globally, costing the U.S. taxpayers billions in added borrowing costs and a dramatic plunge in the stock market.
Unfortunately for the country, should this new and clueless breed of Republicans take control over the House in 2022, there is no leader among them respected enough to thwart their worst impulses, no matter how self-destructive. Assuming an unctuous political invertebrate like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy advances to the speakership, he will have next to no control over the actions of his caucus, and no capacity or authority to negotiate a resolution to such a crisis.
As Ornstein writes:
If there is one timeworn cliché about elections, it is that the next one is the most significant in our lifetime. There is reason to believe it is true this time. Although the outcomes remain uncertain, one thing is clear: If Republicans win control of the House of Representatives, the country will face a series of fundamental challenges much greater than we have had in any modern period of divided government, including a direct and palpable threat of default and government shutdown. The Republican majority will be more radical, reckless, and willing to employ nuclear options to achieve its goals than any of its predecessors have been, and its leadership, starting with McCarthy, will be either compliant or too weak to head off catastrophe.
This would effectively leave the fate of American people at the mercy of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and others of the House’s bomb-throwing caucus, all of whom (as Ornstein notes) would be perfectly willing to march off the ledge and plunge the nation into a fiscal catastrophe, if only to solicit the ersatz applause of their thousands of Russian Twitter-bot followers. These people have already amply demonstrated they live in a hermetically sealed bubble of partisan rancor and fantasy that brooks no dissent, far less any inclination to fiscal reason. Through their warped, Trump-distorted goggles they would simply view this as an opportunity to permanently damage the Biden administration and earn the adulation of their equally nihilistic constituents.
As Tom Nichols, also writing for The Atlantic, aptly described the Republican MAGA base:
These citizens do not want a discussion or a compromise. They don’t even want to “win,” in any traditional political sense of that word. They want to vent anger over their lives—their personal problems, their haunted sense of inferiority, and their fears about social status—on other Americans, as vehemently as possible, even to the point of violence. [...]
The MAGA movement isn’t interested in politics, or policies, or compromises. It is interested in destruction and seeing others made as miserable as its followers are.
Fortunately, there is a way of dispensing with this farce and neutering the MAGA base’s ability to inflict their ignorance and nihilism on the rest of us, one not involving dubious gimmicks such as the minting of a trillion-dollar coin to cover our nation’s debts, or risking a constitutional crisis by President Joe Biden invoking the 14th Amendment to unilaterally suspend the debt ceiling. As Ornstein explains:
If the Republicans prevail in November, the lame-duck session becomes an opportunity to take this threat off the table once and for all. The way to do so is by making permanent, perhaps via reconciliation, the ironically named “McConnell Rule.” The rule was raised by the Senate Republican leader a decade ago to allow the president to raise the debt ceiling. It allows Congress to pass a joint resolution blocking the action, but contains a provision where the president is able to veto that resolution—meaning, in this instance, that a president would need only one-third of support plus one of the two houses of Congress to avoid default.
Since such a provision is quite literally tied to the budget it should pass muster with the parliamentarian for reconciliation in the lame-duck Congress, even in the event Republicans take control of the House. All Democrats—even ones like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema—would vote for it because their donors know what havoc a default would wreak on their own prospects, even if the MAGA base does not (Manchin has already expressed his support for such a procedure). House Republicans would scream and howl (and fundraise of course) about “tyranny and “executive overreach,” but they’re going to do that anyway.
As Ornstein observes, the stakes are just too high now to ignore the issue or hope it will somehow “work out:”
We have moved into a new and frightening era in American politics and governance, one when radicals intent on a revolution and craving major disruption will be not just a vocal minority but potentially dominating a governing body. We cannot risk the full consequences of that brutal reality.
No one can foresee the November election results. But the consequences of a Republican takeover of the House—if it happens—will be stark and visible soon enough to all Americans. In fact, Republicans have already made their intentions quite clear:
Democrats have no reason to accede to this kind of sabotage. It’s time to put a stop to it, once and for all.
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