Republicans may have valid reasons to worry that Trump’s newfound bipartisanship is a harbinger of things to come, but at least one of the ideas he is floating deserves to be taken seriously by both sides of the aisle: Trump has reportedly proposed doing away with future debt ceiling votes. In fact, The Washington Post is reporting that Trump and Chuck Schumer have already cut a deal that would permanently end the requirement.
It has become an article of faith on the right that this painful process provides a check on spending. I’m sympathetic to this argument, but it’s worthwhile to question the premise. Does it?
It is true that the 2013 sequestration (which originated as a response to the 2011 debt ceiling crisis) reduced the deficit. It was also potentially dangerous in terms of cutting funding for national security. Even if one concedes that sequestration was a net positive, it was a rare instance of the debt ceiling strategy actually working. More often than not, the right postures about the debt limit, finds that no one in Washington is willing to shoot the hostage, and (after garnering lots of bad press for Republicans) spending still goes up. There’s also a sort of laziness in thinking that some sort of procedural shortcut—another gimmick—will jury-rig the system into cutting the fat. It’s true that Washington has a spending problem, but the solution is to stop spending money on the appropriations side—not to retroactively contemplate refusing to pay the bill after running up charges promiscuously.
What makes matters worse is that this is also a dangerous game. “The existence of the debt ceiling is simply an appendage; it opens the possibility of a cataclysmic accident in which Congress authorizes debt through its budget that it refuses to back through the debt ceiling,” writes New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait.
When it comes to gaining leverage, the seriousness of the potential consequences is a feature, not a bug.
But there is a difference: Now that Republicans control everything in Washington, they are at the greatest risk for being hustled. They have the burden (and subsequent blame) of raising the limit, which translates to Democrats having more leverage. And while it’s fair to point out that they are less averse to raising the limits on moral or philosophical grounds, yes, Democrats have been known to play games with this process, too. Ronald Reagan called it “blackmail” when congressional Democrats sent him a bill to raise the debt limit that also included tax increases. And nearly two decades later, then-Senator Barack Obama voted against a debt ceiling increase that President George W. Bush needed. He knew it would pass without him, which puts him in the same category of today’s Republican showmen who get to preserve their ideological purity, all the while assuming that other leaders will inevitably bail them out.
The point here is that both sides do this. If Republicans could take hostages as leverage to cut future spending, then Democrats could leverage their votes (which are vital when you consider that some number of conservatives will, on principle, never vote to raise the limit) to raise taxes.
There are other arguments for why Republicans should at least maintain an open mind about getting rid of the requirement.
First, let’s not pretend this process was written in stone. Throughout different points in history, the rules regarding the debt limit have varied. For example, from 1979 to 1995, Congress didn’t have to endure this. Spending certainly increased dramatically during that time (we were in an existential battle against communism for most of that time), but it was nothing compared to what we’ve seen in recent years.
It’s also true that fiscal conservatives at least claim to believe that instability and unpredictability have a chilling effect on businesses and investors. What could be more chilling than the threat of default? “I think the president senses that the debt ceiling is a Washington contrivance that most Americans do not like or understand, generating unnecessary uncertainty that hurts jobs and scares markets,” Bruce Mehlman, former assistant secretary of Commerce who now advises many Fortune 100 companies and CEOs, tells me.
Markets don’t seem rattled right now, but as a rationale for downgrading America’s credit rating for the first time ever in 2011, the S&P explained, “The political brinkmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy.”
But these are mostly arguments about the merits and efficacy of this process. The truth is that Donald Trump has always been more interested in politics than policy. And doing this would be good politics.
Trump relishes fights against “the way Washington has always done things,” and the public is tired of lurching from debt ceiling crisis to debt ceiling crisis. It’s a classic example of an inside-the-Beltway charade that annoys normal Americans and erodes their trust in Washington. “[Trump] has a chance to run against Washington and many in the GOP establishment, two of his favorite foils,” says Mehlman.
The debt-ceiling vote has served its purpose. This is one tradition that Trump really should blow up.