Thursday, September 7, 2017

The bizarre politics of the debt ceiling and Trump's deal with the Democrats

Just when we didn't think that the politics of the debt ceiling could get any weirder...

OK, quick reminder.  (Sorry, but I gotta do this.  Skip this paragraph if you remember what the debt ceiling is, and don't need a refresher).  Congress requires the Treasury to disburse more money than it allows the IRS to collect.  They make up the difference by selling bonds, but Congress places a statutory limit on the value of the bonds that the Treasury can sell.  If we hit that limit-- the "debt ceiling"-- it is mathematically necessary that at least one law gets broken.  Either not all of the money that Congress has required to be disbursed gets disbursed, the IRS has to collect more money than they are allowed to collect, or the Treasury has to sell more bonds than they are allowed to sell.  All of those options are illegal.  The least illegal thing to do is to not pay everyone.  That's illegal and economically stupid.  The solution?  Easy.  Raise the damned debt ceiling.  No other country is stupid enough to have one anyway.  OK, that's out of the way.

Now, Trump has actually been... kind of smart about this.  Excuse me while I gulp a bunch of my coffee to remove the taste of bile from my mouth.

That was not a good flavor combination, just in case you were curious.  Tasted like Starbucks!

Anyway, Trump's people have explained to him that if the debt ceiling doesn't get raised, disaster happens, and he takes the blame, so quite reasonably, he wants to attach a debt ceiling increase to a popular bill.  First, he wanted it attached to the VA bill.  Congress didn't do that, so he got pissed.  He was... right.  (And there's that bile flavor again...)  Then, he got on board with attaching the debt ceiling increase to Hurricane Harvey aid.  Democrats were amenable, along with a few months postponement of a government shutdown.  Deal!

And Ryan and McConnell got pissed.

Fascinating.  Why?  Here's what gets me on this.  The proposal just raises the debt ceiling for a few months.  Ryan and McConnell supposedly got pissed because they want a debt ceiling increase through 2018.

OK, we can see why.  GOP leaders hate dealing with this.  It was the debt ceiling that brought down Boehner.  Why?  He kept having to cave to Obama without concessions on the debt ceiling, bringing bills to the floor of the House with mainly Democratic support, and that got the most extreme wing of his caucus upset.  So, they sacked Boehner.  (I still love typing that).  Of course, Boehner did the right thing.  And, Ryan was reluctant to take the job after the sacking.  As part of the deal to get Ryan, Boehner had to raise the debt ceiling one last time through the 2016 election to save Ryan from having to do it.  Ryan doesn't want to go through this any more times than he absolutely has to.  A short-term increase means Ryan has to do this again.  He doesn't want to bring a debt ceiling increase to the floor now with Democratic support (that's what did in Boehner), and he doesn't want to have to worry about the debt ceiling again in December.

Here's the thing, though.  If Ryan and McConnell actually want to raise the debt ceiling through 2018 so that they don't have to worry about this again until after the midterm election, there is an answer, and the Hurricane Harvey deal doesn't preclude it.  They could... pass a separate bill that raises the debt ceiling through the entirety of 2018.  What stops them?  In the House, the Freedom Caucus, but they oppose everything anyway.  Ryan and McConnell are constrained by years of demagoguery on the debt ceiling such that they don't feel like they can raise the debt ceiling without enough of a gimmick.  They thought that they could have used the Harvey relief thing as a gimmick to work through 2018, but hadn't figured out the details, and the Democrats moved first.  Maybe, given enough time, Ryan and McConnell could have found that gimmick.  Then again, maybe not.

Still, their anger is both understandable and amusing.  A debt ceiling increase through 2018 is preferable.  Why?  The debt ceiling must be raised.  Period.  In that sense, the Democrats screwed Ryan and McConnell.  Then again, there is no guarantee that Ryan and McConnell would have actually figured out the gimmick to put through a debt ceiling increase through 2018.  They don't exactly have a sparkling record of success.  So, the Democrats moved first, and if Ryan and McConnell really want the debt ceiling raised through 2018, they could put a "clean debt ceiling increase" on the floor, meaning one that raises the debt ceiling without conditions, and the entire Democratic caucus of the House and Senate will vote yes.  A few Republicans will too.  The debt ceiling will be raised, and the GOP won't have to worry about it again until 2018 or later, if Ryan and McConnell so choose.

Why don't they do it?  Because Ryan will get Boehnered if he does.


  1. Ryan's already getting Boehnered:

    1. It depends on whether this is just posturing or not. If you recall, there were symbolic votes against Boehner at the beginning of his last term as Speaker. This could be a prelude in the same way, or just I'm-more-conservative-than-you posturing. We'll see. The problem is that once Boehner was gone, they had McCarthy, and then Ryan as potential successors. If they sack Ryan, I don't think there is anyone who can a) get a majority vote, and b) be convinced to take the job. I think they may be stuck with Ryan.

    2. It took years to clean up the mess after Newt's affairs left Santorum all over the chamber. Do they really want to go there again? (And then they wound up with a child molester... I guess the showers in the high school gym made it easier to clean up the Santorum...)