early and often

The GOP Can’t Remember Why It Took the Debt Ceiling Hostage

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Hostage taking is, traditionally, a means to an end. A criminal organization wants to earn fast cash, so it kidnaps the child of a business tycoon. Or a militant group wants some of its members released from prison, so it seizes a government building. Maybe some of the individuals involved are sadists or psychopaths who get a kick out of threatening people’s lives. But their ultimate aim isn’t to terrorize; the ransom is the point.

House Republicans, however, appear to be nontraditional hostage takers. Instead of formulating demands and then contriving a hostage situation in order to get them met, Kevin McCarthy’s caucus has formulated a hostage situation and is now scrambling to come up with some demands. The party knows it wants to threaten to trigger a global financial crisis unless Joe Biden gives them something. But they don’t actually know what that thing is.

In recent days, the White House has reiterated its unwillingness to negotiate over a debt-ceiling hike. Its reasoning is simple: Everyone involved recognizes that raising the debt ceiling merely authorizes the executive branch to honor spending commitments that Congress has already made, and that failing to do so would have disastrous consequences for the American people. So neither party should try to coerce the other into passing policies antithetical to its ideology by threatening to torpedo the full faith and credit of the United States.

At the same time, the Biden administration has expressed a general willingness to negotiate with Republicans over fiscal policy outside the context of a debt-ceiling standoff. But before entering into such discussions, the president would like McCarthy to honor a simple request: “Show me your budget and I’ll show you mine” was Biden’s message for the Speaker Monday afternoon.

But McCarthy won’t take him up on that offer. Even as Republicans insist that their fiscal plans are so urgently necessary and democratically mandated that they’re justified in coercing a coequal branch of government into enacting them, they have refused to reveal what those plans actually are.

Their lack of candor isn’t hard to understand. There is simply no way to reconcile Republican activists’ fiscal pretensions with Republican electeds’ political imperatives.

Conservative true believers are committed to simultaneously balancing the federal budget within a decade and slashing tax rates. In order to win his bid for House Speaker, McCarthy had to commit to adopting a “Budget Resolution balancing within 10 years.” The Republican Study Committee, the largest House GOP caucus, released a plan to achieve that goal last year. But it included sweeping cuts to Medicare and Social Security, which a large majority of voters oppose.

Last month, Donald Trump warned his party that “Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security.” And GOP lawmakers have heeded that call, with McCarthy telling CBS on Sunday that Medicare and Social Security cuts were “off the table.”

Meanwhile, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Texas Republican Kay Granger, has sworn that House Republicans do not “support cutting our national defense.”

The GOP’s position on Medicaid is less clear. Under Donald Trump, Republicans tried and failed to slash Medicaid spending by more than $1 trillion. And Republicans have pointedly avoided forswearing cuts to that program. Given that Medicaid finances long-term care for millions of seniors and keeps many rural hospitals afloat, however, gutting it presents many of the same coalitional problems as slashing Medicare and Social Security. The GOP’s disproportionately old and rural-dwelling voters disproportionately benefit from all three programs.

In any case, Republican lawmakers have recently sworn off cuts to “entitlements” altogether, insisting “their plan will only focus on the discretionary side of spending,” according to CNN.

But balancing the budget in ten years without cutting entitlements or defense would require slashing discretionary spending on everything else by 85 percent, the New York Times reports. And that is before the cost of the GOP’s desired tax cuts are factored in. Such draconian spending reductions would upend myriad services that Republican constituencies rely on and countless projects that bring investment and jobs to red districts.

Thus, any set of fiscal demands that McCarthy releases will either betray conservative true believers by failing to balance the federal budget or generate propaganda for Biden’s reelection by aligning the Republican Party with gargantuan cuts to popular programs, all while antagonizing Donald Trump, national security hawks, Biden-district GOP representatives, or some combination of the three.

Complicating matters further, if McCarthy wanted to tie a debt-ceiling hike to a partisan austerity bill and then pass it through the House, he would have virtually no margin for error. The GOP has a scant five-vote majority in the chamber, and three House Republicans are so delusional and/or nihilistic that they have committed to opposing a debt-ceiling increase “under any circumstances.” Which is to say: These lawmakers officially see forcing the United States into default as an end in itself.

That means that any GOP bill to raise the debt limit could afford to lose only a single additional Republican. Given that many Republicans in deep-red districts more or less exist to engage in politically toxic ideological posturing, while several GOP lawmakers in purple districts do not want to make de facto in-kind contributions to their Democratic challengers, it seems possible that there is no debt-ceiling bill that can pass the House with only Republican votes.

All this said, there are surely some modest spending cuts on which all Republicans can agree. But if your objective is merely to pare back spending on the margins, then you have no rationale for picking an apocalyptic fight over the debt limit; you can just press the issue during the negotiations over next year’s budget. The whole premise of obstructing a debt-ceiling hike is that the deficit has become a national emergency requiring extraordinary measures. Proposing mere tweaks to the federal budget belies that premise.

So why have Republicans picked this fight? After all, in contrast to the Obama era, the conservative base is no longer animated by deficit concerns. As the New York Times’s Nate Cohn notes, in March 2021, more Republicans had “heard a lot” about the Seuss estate canceling six problematic children’s books than had heard about Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package. And when the Times/Sienna poll asked midterm voters to name the most important problem facing America, only one of the survey’s 1,641 respondents mentioned the debt, the deficit, or federal spending.

In truth, Republicans aren’t fighting to win anything in particular; they’re fighting to fight. Senate Republicans agreed to pass an omnibus spending bill in December despite the fact that their party would have more leverage over the budget after it took control of the House in January. That bill authorized large increases in domestic spending. Right-wing media went apoplectic at this demonstration of weakness and bipartisan comity. The incoming GOP majority therefore felt compelled to perform its own commitment to the conservative cause by taking the debt ceiling hostage. Pursuing extreme tactics was the imperative. Actual policy goals were an afterthought.

So McCarthy does not want to show Biden his budget. He wants the president to give him an off-ramp — some way of saving face with his die-hards without jeopardizing his frontliners’ reelection campaigns. Alas, for the moment, Biden has no interest in doing the Speaker’s job for him.

The GOP Can’t Remember Why It Took the Debt Ceiling Hostage