Yesterday, President Trump infuriated fellow Republicans by agreeing to Democratic plans for a short-term debt-ceiling hike, rather than the longer-term one they favor. But something far more significant came out of the meeting: Trump and the Democratic leadership reportedly made a handshake agreement to abolish the debt ceiling altogether.
During the Obama presidency, House Republicans used the threat to refuse to lift the debt ceiling as blackmail to force the president to give them unilateral policy concessions. The main Republican goal appears to be maintaining their ability to use this weapon against Democratic presidents while minimizing the threat it poses to Republican ones. Paul Ryan opposes the abolition of the debt ceiling because, he says, “there’s a legitimate role for the power of the purse of the Article 1 powers and that’s something we defend here in Congress.”
This is utter bunk. The power of the purse has nothing to do with the debt ceiling. Congress votes to determine the federal budget — i.e., the power of the purse. The debt ceiling is a separate vote it must also take to authorize the debts already incurred; authorizing an increase in the debt ceiling does not cause more spending. 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. If Congress fails to lift the debt ceiling when needed, the Treasury literally would not be able to pay its debts, which would wreak economic havoc and permanently raise interest rates. The threat of such a cataclysm is what right-wingers have leveraged in the past.
Ryan may believe that this threat is a more useful weapon for his party than the opposing party, since wielding it requires the credible reputation for being dangerous maniacs immune to facts and reason — a reputation the right wing of the Republican Party has earned over the years. But from the perspective of the country as a whole, there is no good reason to keep this unexploded ordnance lying around.