We barely had time to catch our breath from the wild spectacle of the Republicans finally electing a speaker when their next spectacle started with a bang. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen abruptly announced that the U.S. will hit the so-called debt ceiling on Jan 19, putting the issue immediately on the front burner. The government can move money around to keep paying its bills until some time next summer, but this is already shaping up to be an exhausting, months-long battle royale. It's probably a good thing that they're getting an early start since the MAGA House majority seems to need some serious remedial instruction on how the world works.
That's not to say that debt-ceiling standoffs are some core tactic of the MAGA movement. In fact, Republicans raised the debt ceiling three times during the Trump administration with no fuss at all. They never felt it necessary to try to persuadeTrump to cut spending, and the Freedom Caucus didn't utter a peep as he massively increased the deficit. These hostage situations are reserved for times when the GOP holds the House and a Democrat is in the White House. Shocking, I know.
This debt ceiling vote is a ritual with no real purpose. The government made the decision during World War I, for reasons that should have been temporary, to require a vote to agree to pay the nation's bills. This makes no sense: Congress already voted to spend the money, so it's ridiculous to require another vote to pay it out. In fact, after the Civil War, the drafters of the 14th Amendment, concerned that Southern Democrats (pretty much the MAGA types of that day and age) would make good on their threat to disavow the national debt incurred during the war, explicitly wrote into the Constitution the words, "the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned."
There were some brief confrontations in earlier years, but it was really Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich who pioneered this modern right-wing terrorist strategy and it was perfected by the Tea Party members during the Obama administration. The Tea Party standoffs in 2011 and 2013 are still vivid in the minds of many in Washington who endured both the battles and the consequences, which were at once political and substantial. Those were among the ugliest fights in modern political memory and came distressingly close to crashing the world economy. This new crew, most of whom were not round for those bruising confrontations, is champing at the bit to see if they can get that done this time.
Not only are payments for necessary services, from Social Security and Medicare to food safety and even the sacred-to-Republicans border security at risk, as the Washington Post's Catherine Rampbell explains, this could tip the entire global economy, already in a fragile state, over into crisis:
Until now, U.S. debt has been considered virtually risk-free. The riskiness of all other assets around the world is benchmarked against the relative safety of U.S. Treasury securities. If the U.S. government reveals itself to be an unreliable borrower, however, expect to see shockwaves course through every other financial market, as many question how safe (or not) those other investments might be. This is the last thing the economy needs amid fears of a global recession.
The bottom line is that this debate is ridiculous. Unfortunately, the Republican Party is even more ridiculous these days, so we are destined to play chicken with the good faith and credit of the U.S. government every time these circumstances present themselves.
It should be noted that all of this was evident when the Democrats still had the House majority, which was more than willing to raise the debt ceiling during December's lame-duck session. Unfortunately, the Diva Twins, meaning Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, refused to eliminate the filibuster or use the budget reconciliation process to get it done.
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Luckily, not all Democrats fail to grasp the moment. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii phrased things perfectly, channeling Michael Corleone in "The Godfather Part II," when asked what Democrats might be willing to offer Republicans: "In exchange for not crashing the United States economy, you get nothing." Regarding demands that Democrats sit down with their opponents at the negotiating table, he replied, "We have to tell them there is no table."
Previous debt ceiling standoffs came perilously close to crashing the world economy. This new GOP crew is champing at the bit to see if they can get that done this time around.
You can't negotiate with people who behave the way these Republicans are behaving. They aren't just delusional but also massively ignorant about what they're attempting to do. Take, for example, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, just named to the House Oversight and Homeland Security committees, who said this on Steve Bannon's podcast shortly after the November election:
What we have to do is, Republicans, when we're in control of the purse and we're setting these appropriation bills, and our budget is — we have to refuse to raise the debt ceiling. We have to get spending back under control and we have to do that by any means possible. And if that means a government shutdown, then I'll be calling for a government shutdown. Because this government — and you can see the people support what I'm saying, Steve – because this government shut our country down with those COVID shutdowns.
That is literally gibberish, completely incomprehensible. Rep Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., made an even dumber comment:
That doesn't make any sense either. Our currency is not "devalued," and that's got nothing to do with the debt ceiling in any case. He apparently doesn't even grasp that taking the debt ceiling hostage is about trying to force Democrats to agree to massive spending cuts in the future, in exchange for paying the bills today. Evidently he doesn't want to pay them at all.
Here's some more gibberish from the actual speaker of the House, when asked about Democrats' demands for a clean debt ceiling increase:
Would you just keep doing that? Or would you change the behavior? We're six months away? Why wouldn't we sit down and change this behavior so that we would put ourselves on a more fiscally strong position?
Here's another idea that's always popular on the right — which would be necessary if they really plan to eliminate the national debt completely, as McCarthy apparently promised in his backroom deals during the speakership saga:
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio is at least a bit more coherent, recognizing that Republicans may have stepped on the third rail with talk about cutting military spending, which one of the backroom negotiators, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, says was never on the table. Jordan said, "Military cuts could be made by eliminating 'woke policies' & re-examining aid to Ukraine, allowing the government to focus more on troops and weapons systems." There's also been talk about eliminating much of the officer corps, which would be an interesting experiment.
Hilariously, Republicans are trying to spin the impending mess this way:
That's cute, but it's not going to fly. Republicans have already shown the whole country that they are wildly unhinged, and nobody will mistake which party is being reckless and which isn't.
It's also clear that they don't care. Donald Trump, their battered spiritual guru, explains what it's really all about:
It's about putting on a spectacle to own the libs, of course. What else would it be? Trump may have lost some of his mojo but his legacy is secure. The Republican Party is still MAGA all the way down.
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