The Makings of the Next Debt Ceiling Debacle

Republicans are preparing to take the debt ceiling hostage…again.

By + More

I hate to interrupt fulminations about President Obama's three incredible shrinking scandals with something as prosaic as concern about the GOP's threatening to sabotage the economy, but a couple of bits of real news emerged yesterday regarding the debt ceiling (yes that, again).

It's actually a perfect juxtaposition: On the same day that an interview with Standard & Poor's top U.S. credit rating analyst warned of tinkering with the debt ceiling, House Republicans huddled up to brainstorm about what their price should be for not deliberately tanking the economy.

On the one hand you've got an interview National Journal did with Nikola Swann, "Standard & Poor's top analyst for the U.S. credit rating." You will recall that Standard & Poor's downgraded its rating of U.S. debt in 2011 after the last debt ceiling showdown. And you will recall that that showdown was engineered by the GOP as a political hostage-taking situation: Virtually everyone (or virtually everyone who is responsible) acknowledges that raising the debt ceiling is necessary to avoid the U.S. government defaulting on its obligations, which would be financially cataclysmic, but the Republicans threatened to force that exact scenario if they didn't get spending cuts.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Now the debt-ceiling-fight countdown clock is ticking once again (the Treasury started its "extraordinary measures" to avoid default at noon today), with the moment of crisis expected to hit some time between August and year's end. Does the prognosis look any better? "We have not seen any strong evidence that the political system as a whole is more effective, more stable, or more predictable than we thought it was in 2011," Swann told National Journal's Stacy Kaper. "There does seem to be, especially in recent years, an overall trend in the U.S. to effectively make major policy decisions at the last moment in a crisis setting. We don't see that as credit-positive."

That's delightful understatement. He goes on to say that in order to avoid another credit downgrade, the U.S. should extend the debt ceiling for five years and bring the debt-to-GDP ratio under control with a plan that is actually credible. House Republicans passed a bill (which stands zero chance of becoming law) which would allow the Treasury to prioritize government payments (which would still leave the government in a position of not paying its bills … it would just be not paying for goods and services while making sure that its debt holders are taken care of). "This does not sound like a very comfortable scenario," he says in another bit of understatement.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The final point in the interview is the most instructive:

S&P rates over 120 sovereign governments, including all of the wealthy developed ones. Of those, there are very few that have anything similar to the U.S. debt ceiling. Of those countries that do have some kind of legislated limit on the amount of debt, that limit is set as part of the budget-setting process. It almost never is divided the way it is in the U.S. We don't think it is helpful to credit quality.</blockquote>

The very idea of a debt ceiling that doesn't rise with authorized spending is, in other words, both uniquely American and uniquely stupid. Why? Because it lends itself to the kind of irresponsible hostage taking the Republicans are gearing up to engage in yet again.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

And it's a political terrorism scheme that is increasingly disengaged from reality (to which its connection was tenuous at best anyway). To wit: The last time around the GOP objection to the debt ceiling was grounded in rising deficits; this didn't make their threats less irresponsible but at least established a plausible-sounding connection between their threat and their demand. But the budget deficit is, as my bloleague Pat Garofalo wrote earlier this week, the incredible shrinking issue. As a percentage of the economy, it is now roughly half of what it was when President Obama took office.

But Republicans know they've got a hostage so they're bound and determined to extract a ransom. Hence the brainstorming session they held yesterday where 39 different members of the House GOP conference arose to offer their idea of what policy they should demand in return for not intentionally tanking the global economy. The ideas, according to various reports, ranged from approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to doing something about partial-birth abortion.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

My personal favorite item comes from Jonathan Strong's account at National Review Online:

The Ryan budget passed by the House assumes repeal of Obamacare. So if House Republicans were to press for enactment of the Ryan budget in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, that would entail repealing Obamacare – which is why there are pangs of doubt within the GOP leadership about whether that strategy is realistic.

So GOP leadership thinks demanding that the president sign onto the radical Ryan budget is unrealistic because it would necessarily involve repealing Obamacare? As if the Ryan budget's dramatic cuts to discretionary spending and gutting of Medicare and Medicaid would be evenly remotely acceptable were Obamacare not involved? The whole scenario yesterday has the air of fantasy – like my wife and I arguing over what we'll do when we win the Powerball tomorrow night (she looks oddly askance at my plan to commute via jet pack).

  • Read Pat Garofalo: The IRS Scandal Is About Budget Cuts, Not the Tea Party
  • Read Susan Milligan: Obama 'Going Bulworth' Wouldn't Give Him Power Over Republicans
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad