The brilliantly stupid new plan to raise the debt ceiling without raising it

How pathetic are House Republicans? Paul Ryan has to sell them on a plan to avert default with tricky language

Published January 22, 2013 7:50PM (EST)

                      (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Madalyn Ruggiero)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Madalyn Ruggiero)

The big debt ceiling question over the last year has been whether the Republican Party's grown-ups, who understand that "not raising the debt ceiling" is a horrible idea, would be able to convince the nuts, who believe -- and they believe this because the "grown-ups" spent the last year recklessly dissembling on the function and purpose of the debt ceiling in order to score political points against Barack Obama -- that not raising the debt ceiling would be no big deal and possibly even beneficial to the American economy, because it would force us to take "tough medicine." It looked for all the world like the elite were losing the argument. The disorganized and hilarious coup against John Boehner was proof that a significant chunk of the House majority wasn't going to listen to reason. Boehner's subsequent passage of legislation with a minority of Republican votes -- a violation of "The Hastert Rule" -- seemed to indicate that the only way forward was bypassing the nuts entirely.

Thankfully for the nation and for Republican unity, a compromise has been reached. The new plan is to raise the debt ceiling while pretending that we're not raising the debt ceiling. And it might pass, thanks to conservatives convincing themselves that it won't really count as raising the debt ceiling.

The plan was apparently concocted and sold at the recent GOP retreat and the Tuesday luncheon of the Republican Study Committee, the ultra-conservative House policy caucus. Here's how it works:

The way the bill is written, Republicans won’t technically be voting to raise the borrowing limit by a set amount, as Congress typically has done. Rather, “the bill would suspend the section of the law that mandates a limit on government borrowing” before May 19, explains George Washington University professor Sarah Binder, a congressional procedure expert. Then, on May 19, “the debt limit would automatically be increased to account for the borrowing that occurred during that period.”

You got that? Instead of simply raising the debt ceiling, which would look real bad, it is being "suspended," which is in effect the exact same thing. Only the Club for Growth won't threaten to primary members who vote for this particular bizarre jury-rigged solution to an entirely invented crisis. Plus, in three months we get to have this exact same showdown, again.

It looks like it's that promise of future opportunities for extortion and brinkmanship that is helping to convince on-the-fence lawmakers to support this debt ceiling pseudo-hike. According to Robert Costa's account, Paul Ryan, who is, along with Eric Cantor, one of the few intelligent people the ultra-conservative members actually listen to, is going from representative to representative patiently explaining that intentionally forcing the United States to default is not actually a good way of accomplishing conservative fiscal policy goals:

But Ryan’s case, members say, is pretty simple. He wants Republicans to shape the fiscal debate this year, and do it unencumbered by the threat of government default. As he sees it, the more unity on where the party is picking its battles, the better.

According to sources, Ryan explained the benefits of short-term extension at the recent GOP retreat and at a Republican Study Committee luncheon on Tuesday.

The legislation also includes that very silly "no budget, no pay" provision that No Labels has been pushing for, which I'm sure will definitely scare all the millionaires in the Senate into action.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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Debt Ceiling Editor's Picks Paul Ryan Politics Republican Party U.s. House Of Representatives