Wednesday, October 06, 2021

The debt ceiling and the filibuster


We are at what appears to be yet another crucial moment in what sometimes seems like an endless sequence of crucial moments in the past five years. 

Majority leader McConnell wants Democrats to raise the debt ceiling through reconciliation. This means that they cannot simply suspend the debt ceiling, as Republicans did during the Trump years, but must name a specific amount that the Treasury is now authorized to borrow. Then Republicans will use that figure to run against Democrats as free-spending socialists in the 2022 campaign, even though the borrowing is partly to pay for the costs incurred by the Trump Administration, and especially shortfalls created by the Trump tax cuts in 2017. In other words, to gain talking points in the 2022 mid-term elections, Republicans want to risk a global economic meltdown.

If this sounds cynical and even nihilistic, that is because it is.

Democrats may not have enough time to use reconciliation. Equally important, Republican Senators who wish to grandstand (e.g., Cruz, Hawley) can find multiple ways to gum up the process. Thus, even if Democrats turned to reconciliation today, there is no guarantee that they could stave off default in time.

This suggests a further problem for the reconciliation approach, raised by Adam Jentelson: McConnell almost certainly does not want a default. (His base of wealthy contributors certainly does not want a default, which would wreck their holdings). But at this point he cannot prevent the members of his caucus from dragging out the process and producing a default by accident. Even if most of the Republican Senators promise to behave themselves, a few will want to grandstand, and gum up the works. 

So McConnell is, in effect, leaving open only a few options--of which one is carving out debt-ceiling votes from the filibuster.  McConnell probably does not want to do this, but it may be a consequence of current politics and his inability to control his caucus.

Once that happens, it opens up further possibilities for scaling back the filibuster. If you remove the filibuster for votes on the debt ceiling, why not for voting rights bills as well? Why not for "constitutional issues" generally? And so on and so on. The Senate has carved away slices of the filibuster twice in the last decade-- once to exempt most executive and lower federal court appointments, then again to exempt Supreme Court appointments. If the Senate now removes votes on the debt ceiling from the filibuster rule, it will be easier for the Senate to make further excisions in the future.

That is what supporters of the filibuster dread. Yet, in a sense, it is the logical outcome of a world in which politicians routinely invoke the filibuster. Because the weapon is so powerful in a highly polarized political environment, it will eventually get in the way of too many people's political interests, and it will be used too irresponsibly and dangerously. At some point, the Senate will eliminate it, in small ways at first, and then in larger chunks.

Make no mistake: a world without a Senate filibuster would not be an ideal world, but it would significantly change the incentives of national politicians, sometimes in obvious ways, and sometimes in more subtle ways. It would be a significant constitutional (with a small "c") change.

There are other possibilities for dealing with the debt ceiling, of course. The president might interpret the Fourteenth Amendment and the Antideficiency Act to buy a little time, but this is not a long-term solution. The Mint might produce a couple of trillion dollar coins, but this too, would not stop the incentives for hostage taking.

There are many clever ways to wriggle out of the current mess. But the most direct and sensible approach is to eliminate the filibuster for votes on the debt ceiling, and then pass one of the following bills: (1) repeal the debt ceiling outright; or (2) provide that the debt ceiling shall automatically be raised whenever Congress appropriates new funds for expenditures; or (3) suspend the debt ceiling until January 1, 3021 or some other far distant time; or (4) raise the debt ceiling to an amount equal to 1000 times the  Gross National Product of the United States, as measured at the end of each fiscal year.

No doubt one could come up with many more solutions, but the general idea behind all of them is this: get rid of the debt ceiling, or end politicians' ability to use it for political hostage taking.

Will the Senate end the filibuster for debt-ceiling votes? We'll find out fairly soon. 

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