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Staying Clear-Eyed About Republican Radicalism on the Debt Ceiling

Resist the temptation to downplay the danger or normalize the GOP’s recklessness.
May 1, 2023
Staying Clear-Eyed About Republican Radicalism on the Debt Ceiling
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks to the media in National Statuary Hall following the House passing a bill focusing on the debt ceiling at the United States Capitol on Wednesday April 26, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

We are nearing a crash into the debt ceiling, the most tangible threat to the full faith and credit of the United States in our lifetimes. But unless you’re paying close attention, you might not know why default is a genuine threat, nor why this crisis is really happening.

The problem is that much of the press coverage reflects neither the direness of the situation nor the reality of whose actions are actually threatening default. Most of the stories published in the mainstream media in the last few days have been about House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ability to get his plan through the House. The stories before that were largely about why President Joe Biden has not met with McCarthy to negotiate, or when he will hold the meeting. But to treat this as a normal political negotiation, or as one where both sides are equally at fault, is to distort reality.

Take, for example, how the story was covered last Thursday by Politico’s Playbook, a daily newsletter read widely every morning by the political and journalistic establishments. Playbook’s reporting on House Republicans’ passage of their debt ceiling plan was basically a paean to McCarthy’s adroitness in eking out a one-vote victory and speculation about the future of his speakership. There was nothing on what was in the bill—nothing about how radical and cynical it is. (More on that in a moment.)

Or take this New York Times report from Thursday covering the options now faced by Biden, focusing largely on tactics, as if this were a normal and typical negotiation—one where Biden is not cooperating because he won’t meet with McCarthy to do the horsetrading necessary to reach a deal.

To be sure, both Politico and the Times have covered this issue in depth elsewhere. And there are other mainstream outlets that have offered blunt, accurate reporting and analysis.

But the tendency to slide into familiar journalistic ruts—to focus on the mechanics of dealmaking rather than on what makes the situation historically abnormal and dangerous—must be constantly resisted.

How radical is the proposal that House Republicans passed? You can read the bill for yourself here, but Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell summarized it well: Under the plan, “most overall nondefense discretionary spending would be slashed by nearly one-third on average in 2024, after adjusting for inflation. The cuts would then expand to roughly 59 percent, on average, by 2033, according to estimates from both the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Center for American Progress.”

How cynical is the Republican proposal? It was not passed with any expectation that it would become law, since everyone knows that the Democratic-led Senate and the Democratic president would not allow that to happen. It is a complete nonstarter. Which means that the GOP is using the possibility of devastating cuts to programs on which millions of Americans rely—eviscerating crucial public services and safety net protections—as a kind of symbolic gesture for the purposes of negotiation.

How historically extreme is the Republican proposal? Of course, we have seen politicians take that kind of stance in the past, only to cut the necessary deals. Ronald Reagan, when governor of California, took a hardline stance over budget negotiations—only to compromise and say, “That sound you hear is the concrete cracking around my feet.” But Reagan was a more traditional politician, unlike today’s radical House Republicans like Bob Good, Ralph Norman, Matt Gaetz, Scott Perry, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and dozens more. They have already signaled that if McCarthy compromises to dilute the proposal—the proposal that, again, cannot pass but that McCarthy promised them was a bottom line, a floor not a ceiling—they will punish him.

In 2011, the United States came close to breaching the debt ceiling. Egged on by House Republican leaders Kevin McCarthy and Eric Cantor, Tea Party lawmakers pushed President Barack Obama with a series of demands, holding the debt limit hostage right to the brink, until Speaker John Boehner rescued America’s full faith and credit. But the consequences of the near miss were still severe. America’s credit rating was downgraded for the first time in history, and the resulting rise in interest rates cost taxpayers billions of dollars in the years that followed.

Boehner’s heroic action was not exactly popular with his GOP colleagues; it was the harbinger of the end of his speakership. And four years later, the Tea Party movement was supplanted by a new organization in the House, the Freedom Caucus, formed because the existing right-wing caucus, the Republican Study Committee that dated back to the 1970s, was not extreme enough. Today, the Freedom Caucus is driving the House agenda, with Speaker McCarthy following, not leading.

There is another historical analogy to consider besides 2011—one that also illustrates the recklessness of House Republican on fiscal matters. In late 2008, with the devastating financial collapse, President George W. Bush sent Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke, the Treasury secretary and Fed chairman, to Capitol Hill with the message that without a massive bailout of financial institutions we would face a global depression. All congressional leaders in both parties agreed, as did the two presidential candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. But despite personal lobbying by Bush, House Republicans killed the plan on the House floor. Only after a precipitous drop in the Dow did they relent.

And they were moderates compared to today’s House Republican radicals—something McCarthy knows full well. It would only take one member to call for a vote on his speakership, and four or five defections would doom him.

But far more than McCarthy’s speakership is at stake. A hard core of the House GOP extremists would be fine with a default.

For many, blowing up government would make the price of economic chaos worth it.

For others, the likelihood that a default would be blamed more on the president makes it a tempting ploy.

And—to come back to where we started—the likelihood that Biden gets blamed is enhanced when the press portrays the issue as a conventional political clash over spending. If this were genuinely about fiscal discipline, Republicans like McCarthy would not have voted three times during the Trump presidency for clean hikes in the debt ceiling—as the debt rose by a staggering $7.8 trillion.

Using the debt ceiling as a hostage is not new. But its use as a cudgel, with a core of hardline GOP lawmakers ready and willing to endure a default and a weak speaker of the House unable to stop them, is new and dangerous, and ought be reported that way. If Republicans believe that they will not face the consequences for their recklessness, we are far more likely to go over the cliff and into the first default in American history.

Norm Ornstein

Norm Ornstein is an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (Twitter: @NormOrnstein).