the national interest

Debt Ceiling Hostage Crisis Over!

January 1981: United States hostages departing an airplane on their return from Iran after being held for 444 days. One of the hostages is waving his fists in the air, and a sign on the plane door says, 'Welcome Back to Freedom'.
Photo: Express/Getty Images

It’s over. House Republicans, following a literal and metaphorical retreat, have announced they plan to lift the debt ceiling without extracting policy concessions. Whatever mini-dramas may follow, the GOP leadership has both recognized the need to abandon their strategy of using the debt ceiling as a hostage and also to recognize this publicly.

The GOP announcement came wrapped in a face-saving demand that “if the Senate or House fails to pass a budget in that time, Members of Congress will not be paid by the American people for failing to do their job.” The point here is to let right-wingers believe, or at least claim, that they succeeded in extracting some concession in return for not playing Russian roulette with the world economy.

But it’s a superficial gesture. The Senate’s failure to pass a budget resolution has become a ubiquitous Republican talking point, but it’s essentially a meaningless technicality. The Senate is operating under the strictures of the 2011 Budget Control Act. Senate Democrats have avoided a separate vote that would expose them to attacks for having “voted for huge deficits,” or tax hikes, or whatever, but it has had no actual impact on policy.

Also, the part about making Congress go without pay turns out to violate the Constitution (“No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened”). The Constitution used to be a really big theme to the House Republicans, who have been regularly accusing Obama of violating their oddball interpretations of it and even, as recently as last week, reading it aloud on the House floor to demonstrate that they are its sole vigilant guardians, but whatever. The 27th Amendment is obviously not a real part of the Constitution, like the 2nd Amendment or the three-fifths clause.

The main credit here goes to the Obama administration for recognizing that enmeshing the debt ceiling with policy negotiations was a horrible idea that it had to stop dead in its tracks. To let debt ceiling hikes become contingent on fiscal policy agreements was to set up endless future crises that would eventually trigger default when one party or another held out for a little too much.

The whole key to making Obama’s extortion-squelching plan, and saving American government from endless cycles of hostage drama that would eventually end in a default, was to credibly insist that he would not trade anything for a debt ceiling hike. After he moved his red line on tax cuts, I doubted that Obama could really make this stick. But he has.

Now, Republicans are only voting on a three-month extension. But this is a face-saving gesture, too. Once they’ve recognized that the debt ceiling isn’t leverage, they have no reason to keep taking painful votes that expose their members to attack ads.

Letting Republicans weaponize the debt ceiling in the first place in 2011 was one of the crucial errors of Obama’s presidency. He appears to have corrected it.

Debt Ceiling Hostage Crisis Over!