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The Disturbing Precedent for McConnell’s Debt-Ceiling Brinksmanship

His tactics echo those perfected by the “Slavocracy” before the Civil War.
October 1, 2021
The Disturbing Precedent for McConnell’s Debt-Ceiling Brinksmanship
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 30: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walks to the U.S. Senate chamber at the U.S. Capitol on September 30, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Senate is expected to pass a short term spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Earlier this week, Republicans in the Senate filibustered a bill that would have both funded the government and raised the debt ceiling. Yesterday, Democrats in Congress, with the help of just a handful of Republicans, managed to pass a stopgap measure to keep the government funded and functioning until December 3. But the debt deadline still looms. If the debt ceiling is not raised by mid-October, then, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen put it in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, “the United States of America would be unable to meet its obligations for the first time in our history.”

In refusing to raise the debt ceiling, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republicans are playing fast and loose with the nation’s economy. This is not the first time McConnell has used extreme methods to achieve his goals—Merrick Garland comes to mind—nor the first time he has used the debt ceiling as a political weapon. During the Obama years, McConnell regularly threatened to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, which would wreck the economy, unless the Obama administration acceded to his demands. After falling quiet while the Trump administration added trillions to the national debt, McConnell and the GOP have vowed to default on the national debt now that a Democrat is back in the White House. While they proclaim to be deeply concerned about fiscal conservatism, this sudden change of heart isn’t a question of political values or true economic concerns—it’s purely about power.

These tactics have a disturbing precedent in the playbook perfected by Southern congressmen before the Civil War—what some historians call “the Slavocracy.” Southerners of that era used their disproportional representation in Congress to push through official measures to defend their “way of life.” The millions of enslaved individuals inflated the population of the South, granting Southern leadership dominance in the House of Representatives. From 1801 to 1861 (from the 7th Congress through the 36th Congress), thirteen Southerners served as speaker of the House while just six Northerners did. To put the disparity even more starkly, a Southerner was speaker for nearly 80 percent of the time Congress was in session during those decades.

The twenty-first century Republican party, with McConnell in prominent leadership roles since 2003, relies on a similar voter imbalance to remain in power. Since the 1992 presidential election, Republican presidential candidates have won the popular vote exactly once, in 2004 when George W. Bush won his re-election. Today, the Senate is split with 50 Democratic senators and 50 Republican senators. However, as Ian Millhiser observed in January, the “Democratic half of the Senate” represents “41,549,808 more people than the Republican half.”

Republicans are also supporting legislation restricting access to the vote in such states as Texas and Georgia, where minority voters make up an increasing percentage of the electorate. Because minority voters are more likely to support Democratic candidates, Republicans are implementing measures intended to keep these voters from exercising their suffrage. Notably, these citizens still count toward the population numbers, and thus the appointed representatives, of the state.

Likewise, the Slavocracy used their inflated power to limit discussion about slavery. On May 26, 1836, James K. Polk, speaker of the House from 1835 to 1839, pushed through a “gag rule” prohibiting any discussion of anti-slavery pamphlets or letters from abolitionists on the House floor. In the 1830s, abolitionist groups organized petition drives with overwhelming numbers to force congressional attention on slavery—an astounding 130,000 petitions in 1837 alone. Worried that sustained debate would undermine slavery, Polk arranged the gag rule to automatically table all petitions before they could be read, reprinted, or discussed.

Initially, Northerners in Congress responded to these debate-limiting measures meekly, mostly trying to avoid conflict. They rationalized their concessions as critical to preserving the stability of the Union. John Quincy Adams and a few others vociferously protested the gag rule as an attack on First Amendment rights, but the House continued to adopt the rule each year until 1844.

Silencing colleagues is a measure McConnell has used as well. In 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren attempted to read a letter written by Coretta Scott King about Jeff Sessions on the floor of the Senate. The letter alleged that Sessions had used “the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.” Senate Republicans rebuked Warren for reading this line and McConnell barred her from participating in the debate over Sessions’s nomination for attorney general.

After the repeal of the gag rule in 1844, Southern congressmen adopted increasingly drastic measures to ward off attempts to limit or undermine slavery. Historian Joanne B. Freeman demonstrated the creative ways Southern congressmen threatened violence to intimidate their Northern colleagues. However, by late 1860, following the election to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, Southerners concluded that threats of violence weren’t sufficient. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union and demanded that federal forces vacate federal forts. On January 9, 1861, South Carolina forces fired shots, the first of what would become the Civil War, on ships attempting to deliver supplies and reinforcements to U.S. forces stationed at Fort Sumter. On April 13, two days before the troops were set to run out of food, U.S. forces surrendered the fort.

As Treasury Secretary Yellen warned in her letter, the federal government will run out of cash and begin defaulting on its debts on October 18. She reminded Congress that inaction would “cause serious harm to business and consumer confidence, raise short-term borrowing costs for taxpayers and negatively impact the credit rating of the United States.” In other words, failing to raise the debt ceiling could plunge the economy into a recession.

In response, McConnell reaffirmed that no Republican will support a debt increase. He is willing to risk tanking the economy, destroying businesses and jobs, and causing immeasurable harm to the American people, for the sole purpose of regaining Republican control of Congress. He isn’t even subtle about these goals, as he proclaimed he’s “100 percent” focused on “stopping” the Biden administration. While he’s not using cannons, McConnell is holding the economy hostage, just as Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard held hostage the U.S. soldiers confined in Fort Sumter. McConnell’s dangerous tactic—disregarding the national interest with potentially calamitous consequences—is one that would look all too familiar to the Slavocracy.

Lindsay M. Chervinsky

Lindsay M. Chervinsky is a presidential historian and a senior fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. She is the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution (Harvard, 2020) and the forthcoming Making the Presidency: John Adams and the Precedents That Forged the Republic (Oxford, 2024). She is also the co-editor of Mourning the Presidents: Loss and Legacy in American Culture (Virginia, 2023). Social media: @lmchervinsky.