See if this sounds familiar: a Democratic president loses unified control of Congress in the midterms. The GOP, feeling newly ascendant, overplays their hand by triggering government shutdowns and/or threatening to not raise the debt ceiling. Brinksmanship ensues, including government shutdowns. The American public mostly blames Republicans for the disruption and mostly back down. The Democratic president wins re-election, based in no small part on a campaign strategy of running against the Republicans in Congress as much as the GOP nominee.
The hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World thinks that aptly describes what happened during the Clinton years and the Obama years. So does Wikipedia and most political scientists, for what it’s worth (it didn’t work out very well for Trump when he tried it in 2019 either). That in and of itself would make it odd for Republicans to revisit this gambit, but in many ways their situation is even less favorable now for them than it was in 1995 or 2011. Both 1994 and 2010 were legitimate wave elections; Republicans could justifiably claim that they had some kind of mandate after the midterms. The 2022 midterms were historically underwhelming for the GOP; there is evidence that they have alienated independent voters. Joe Biden’s popularity is on the upswing.
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Naturally, the GOP’s House majority is planning to use both the debt ceiling and the prospect of a government shutdown as a threat to extract budget concessions from the Biden administration.
From the Washington Post:
House Republicans are preparing a plan telling the Treasury Department what to do if Congress and the White House don’t agree to lift the nation’s debt limit later this year, underscoring the brinkmanship newly empowered conservatives will bring to the high-stakes negotiations over averting a U.S. default, according to six people aware of the internal discussions….
The emerging contingency plan shows how Republicans are preparing to threaten to not lift the nation’s debt ceiling without major spending cuts from the Biden administration. Congress must pass a law raising the current limit of $31.4 trillion or the Treasury Department can’t borrow anymore, even to pay for spending lawmakers have already authorized. Economists warn that not raising the debt limit could cause the United States to default, sparking a major panic on Wall Street and leading to millions of job losses.
Such a move would be unprecedented and hugely controversial, and even releasing the plan could turn into a major political liability for the GOP. A hypothetical proposal that protects Social Security, Medicare, veterans benefits and the military would still leave out huge swaths of critical federal expenditures on things such as Medicaid, food safety inspections, border control and air traffic control, to name just a handful of thousands of programs. Democrats are also likely to accuse Republicans of prioritizing payments to U.S. bondholders — which include Chinese banks — over American citizens.
“Any plan to pay bondholders but not fund school lunches or the FAA or food safety or XYZ is just target practice for us,” a senior Democratic aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a proposal that hasn’t yet been released publicly.
If that was not enough, Politico reports on how House Republicans are setting up a possible government shutdown in the fall:
House Republicans are vowing to put Don Quixote to shame by tilting at a huge windmill: slashing federal spending by at least $130 billion without cutting defense.
It’s a proposition that’s severely unlikely on its face, before factoring in a Democratic Senate and White House that would never accept such cuts. Even the GOP’s fallback plan for avoiding a shutdown later this year — passing a short-term funding patch that would trigger reductions as an incentive for lawmakers to finish comprehensive spending bills — is inconceivable this term….
“I don’t think we’ve had a really good full-throated discussion and debate about what is politically doable,” said Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas, a Republican appropriator.
McCarthy’s assurance that Republicans will look to cap funding for next fiscal year at fiscal 2022 levels is “simply a non-swimmer,” as he put it: “I think we’ll come to the realization that the ‘22 number was rolled off the tongue pretty well, but it’s a lift that we’re not going to be able to make.”
Most of this seems substantively awful. Even if the GOP plan on debt repayments was legal and executable — neither of which appears to be true — it would amount to a fiscal contraction that would plunge the economy into recession. Oh, and then there’s the whole “tanking financial markets” aspect to it.
As previously noted, a government shutdowns would also be politically toxic for Republicans. Why, then, are so many Republicans pursuing a strategy that seems tailor-made to produce a second Biden term and a loss of the House?
I don’t know the answer to this question — you could not pay me enough money to mind-meld with Matt Gaetz or Kevin McCarthy. But I think there are two semi-plausible arguments. One applies to the “moderates,” the other applies to the Gaetzs of the world.
For moderate Republicans, this is all about pushing the Overton Window to the right. Moderate Republicans will support the GOP crazies acting all crazy in a bid to woo Democratic moderates to make some policy concessions on spending. In a long Friday read about the Problem Solvers Caucus, Politico’s Sarah Ferris interviewed the co-heads Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and this is what they said to her:
“There’s going to be things they have to get done,” Gottheimer said of the new GOP majority and a list of unavoidable obligations that includes keeping the government funded, raising the debt limit and passing a farm bill. “The only way that will happen is if moderate Democrats work with a group of Republicans to help them get it across the finish line.”
And Fitzpatrick, a McCarthy ally, agrees: “I’m going to need Josh and my colleagues to get on board with that,” he said of the looming debt fight, which he predicted will need some spending cuts to pass the chamber (emphasis added).
Note that Fitzpatrick’s reasonable position on the debt ceiling is still to use it as a hostage to secure spending cuts. AEI’s Michael Strain makes a similar argument in a recent column. After acknowledging the disaster of approaching a default, Strain argues, “[Biden and congressional Democrats] should acknowledge the more widely shared Republican argument that federal spending has reached problematic levels… and they should then find some spending that can be cut.”
As for the hardliners, I think the motivation is simpler: they simply do not believe all the apocalyptic warnings being made about government shutdowns and debt defaults. They represent the extreme tail end of Ideas Industry dynamics: zero respect for expertise and authority and a pure partisan lens to view the world. Experts warn that defaulting on the debt could be catastrophic?! Oh, the same experts who thought that inflation would be transitory or that vaccines work?! Bring it on!
Earlier this month the Washington Post’s Philip Bump examined the nominating speeches during the battle for Speaker of the House. The Republicans who opposed McCarthy all evoked similar variations on a theme: the system is broken and we are here to upend that system. And if that means bringing down the full faith and credit of the federal government, so be it. As Chip Roy said in one of his nominating speeches, “This country needs a change. This country needs leadership that does not reflect this city, this town that is badly broken…. I just ask my friends on this side of the aisle, do you think that the American people support the status quo?”
The answer to Roy’s question is that it is possible to be dissatisfied with the status quo without preferring some variation of The Purge films as an alternative. But it sure seems like House Republicans are going to have to travel awfully far down the counterfactual of a debt default to reach that same conclusion.
And why didn't the Democrats pass a debt ceiling limit increase or abolish the whole debt ceiling nonsense after the mid-terms when they had control of both houses of Congress? Schumer and Pelosi could have done it, but they passed giving the GOP ammunition to hold Democratic priorities or the whole government and finance hostage. Obama fell for this game in 2010. Here we go again weaponizing the Republicans. When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?
It seems to me that the Republicans have been captured by their most angry and extreme members and their supporters. These people revel in conflict and have forgotten that elections are won by the crucial people in the sensible center. This process has become so strong that they simply never contemplate what their ‘feel good’ actions look like to anyone who doesn’t hate Democrats. As a result being disruptive has become an end in itself rather than a strategy. It’s particularly dangerous for the Republicans because their supporter base is smaller than the Democrats (and getting smaller due to demographic trends) so they can’t win election just by firing up their base.