Debt-Limit Extortion Time (Again)

photo of Mitch McConnell
Would you buy a used car from this man? How about a piece of legislation?

If any further proof was required that the harmful, ridiculous debt-limit fights we seem to be having every six or eight months now are nothing more than extortion on the part of petulant Republicans, Mitch McConnell provided it in spades today. He took to the airwaves of FOX News Sunday to give the audience a fantasy wish-list of Republican goals that he might try to extract from the President for being willing, grudgingly, to raise the nation’s debt ceiling once again. Questioned by host Chris Wallace, McConnell indicated Republicans would try once again to tie to a debt limit hike to any of a regular laundry list of GOP policy goals, from approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to repealing the “risk corridors” provision in the health care law.

While there’s no doubt McConnell and Congressional Republicans will fight hard for any of these wish-list items from Democrats, and even less doubt the GOP would take them if they’re offered, it’s important for Democrats to remember two things about McConnell’s words. First, they are literally nothing more than (an attempt at) extortion. Everything mentioned by McConnell could (and, under our system of government, should) be accomplished through the normal process of legislation. And if the GOP controlled more than one half of one of the three branches of government or if they could convince enough Democrats their ideas were worthwhile, they would be. But they don’t, and they can’t, and so every single one of those goals of the GOP remain on their wish list, instead of being enacted into law.

I know that must piss McConnell, Boehner and the tea-crew off to no end, but it’s the simple math of governing: if you can’t convince a majority that your ideas are the best, you don’t achieve a majority, and your ideas don’t become law.

The second thing to remember about McConnell’s words is even more important for Democrats in Washington, as well as their supporters. Because, immediately following McConnell’s fantasy wish-list of GOP goodies he hopes to extort from the President, McConnell said the following:

We need not have a default — we’re never going to default. The speaker and I made that clear. We’ve never done that.

That’s the entire ball game, right there, if you’re paying attention.

The country may have begun growing wearily accustomed to repeated attempts by the GOP to force the portions of their agenda they can’t accomplish through normal legislative channels upon the American people, but let there be no doubt whatsoever about the meaning of these words of McConnell’s, or what their implications are for the President (and, to a lesser extent, congressional Democrats). McConnell says Republicans will never agree to a clean debt-limit bill, but in the next breath, he ALSO says the US never has and never will default on its debt.

Sorry, Mitch, but you simply can’t have it both ways. You can’t admit you won’t allow the country to default on its debt at the same time you pronounce yourself inflexibly opposed to a clean debt-limit raise. As long as the President and Democrats realize this and remain firm, you will have to choose: either you will push the button and send the United States into official default intentionally and indefinitely for the first time in its history, or you will, once again, back down and raise the debt ceiling, cleanly.

At least, you can’t have it both ways if your Democratic opposition

  • is paying attention
  • isn’t prone to either caving in peremptorily, and
  • isn’t given to fits of bipartisanship-for-its-own-sake

Sadly, none of these things are necessarily the case with either some current Congressional Dems or with the President, as 2011’s debt ceiling debacle taught us. However, there’s reason to hope that the most-recent debt-ceiling showdown results will have served to remind the President and Congressional Dems that McConnell gives away the entire game right in that last paragraph. This calculus has yet to change: if the President and Congressional Democrats stay strong, McConnell and Boehner will, in the end, fold.

This remains true because the behind-the-scenes realities of the matter have not changed. Two particular, very large realities, in fact:

  1. Wall Street owns the GOP (and much of the Democratic party, but that’s a tale for a different post).
  2. Who would take the brunt of the hit if America defaults on its full faith and credit? Well, all of us, unfortunately, but the hammer-stroke will fall first and hardest on the investor class. On Wall Street.

So, as I have argued before, if it ever starts even appearing to Wall Street as if McConnell, Boehner, et. al. have become disconnected-enough from reality to consider allowing a default, every GOP member of Congress will receive a phone call – several, probably – informing them in no uncertain terms what the consequences for them personally and for their party would be. And they will fall in line. A few extremist dead-end teaparty types might not, but they will be primaried out of their seats at the next election time, and in any event, they would be so few and far between that their continued insistence on financial self-harm-by-default would have no practical effect.

Mitch McConnell knows this. He just told you so, if you were paying attention. Sure, he’d like to get any wish-list items the Democrats are willing to give away for nothing…but he’s aware he won’t get them unless the Democrats are dumb enough to believe his bluster again this time. They were in 2011. More recently, they weren’t. Let’s hope it’s the latter evidence of staying strong that sticks, rather than 2011’s knuckling-under.