Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
the national interest

The Media Is Normalizing Debt-Ceiling Extortion

No, this isn’t how Congress always does it. It’s different and dangerous.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Ten years ago, when Barack Obama faced down an attempt by House Republicans to extract concessions in return for lifting the debt ceiling, he explained that he saw this tactic as inimical to functioning self-government. “If we continue to set a precedent in which a president … is in a situation in which each time the United States is called upon to pay its bills, the other party can simply sit there and say, ‘Well, we’re not going to … pay the bills unless you give us … what we want,’ that changes the constitutional structure of this government entirely,” he explained.

For a while, Obama’s perspective mostly carried the day. But as the new Republican-led House seeks to renew the effort to use the debt ceiling as a hostage, a revisionist interpretation has taken hold: This isn’t a new or dangerous tactic, it’s just how Congress operates.

“The House Republicans’ insistence on negotiations and compromise is not hostage taking. It is the ordinary stuff of politics,” claims law professor Michael McConnell. “A standalone clean debt ceiling is dead on arrival … In modern times, the debt ceiling is raised with negotiations,” asserts Punchbowl’s Jake Sherman.

Andrew Prokop of Vox argues, “Historically, it hasn’t been the case that the debt ceiling is a sacrosanct thing that shouldn’t be subject to typical political horse-trading. In 2017, Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer bragged to the New York Times that he had used the debt ceiling as ‘leverage’ over President Trump.”

This is all totally false. These arguments conflate negotiation, which is historically common in debt-ceiling bills, with extortion, which isn’t.

It is true that, historically, debt-ceiling bills have also been wrapped together with other measures. But what McCarthy is doing is not that. He is threatening to refuse to lift the debt ceiling unless President Biden grants him concessions. The parties are not engaged in “horse-trading,” because all the horses are being handed by one party to the other. They are only negotiating over the size and contours of the ransom payment.

This is neatly illustrated by the recent news that Democrats have met the Republican’s putative concern over deficits by proposing to include closing a handful of small tax loopholes, but Republicans have categorically ruled out any revenue increases in the bill. There is no mutual exchange of concessions, as past bills accompanying a debt-ceiling hike have featured.

The difference between an ordinary negotiation over the contours of a debt-ceiling increase and extortion is that the latter includes demands and threats. The demands are not proposals to combine policy one side prefers with policy the other side wants (i.e., we’ll fund my food stamp program in return for funding your farm subsidy program). A demand is an insistence on obtaining unreciprocated policy gains that the counterparty would otherwise oppose.

The threats are the mechanism for obtaining the demands: Specifically, the threat is to refuse to lift the debt ceiling unless concessions are given in return.

Congressional negotiations are sufficiently obtuse that an extortionist can in theory hide demands behind the veil of legitimate negotiations. (Think of the small-business owners who hire Tony Soprano’s garbage collectors: They are getting a real service for their money, but the deal is underwritten by an extortionist threat.)

In practice, everybody knows perfectly well when Congress is horse-trading around a debt-ceiling bill and when it is holding it hostage. When you have a hostage threat, as we have now and had under Obama, there are hundreds of news articles about the standoff and serious fears the debt ceiling will not be lifted. You have Republican leaders stating the debt ceiling might not be lifted, and if that happens, it will be Biden’s fault for failing to give him enough. (i.e., Kevin McCarthy: “It’s time for President Biden to come to the negotiating table or risk bumbling into default.”) This, not coincidentally, is exactly what hostage-takers say to the people they are extorting.

Can you recall any of these things happening under President Trump or George W. Bush? Of course not. Under those presidents, the debt ceiling was lifted, but the press barely paid any attention to it, and the few stories they did produce were boring, because there was no drama. Democrats never threatened to refuse to lift the debt ceiling or even seriously contemplated using the vote to force Republicans to do things they would otherwise refuse.

The Times story from 2017 quoted by Prokop has been repeatedly circulated by Republicans in an attempt to show that Democrats actually did hold the debt ceiling hostage under President Trump. It is true that Schumer used the word leverage in conjunction with the debt ceiling in that article. It doesn’t specify what he meant by leverage, but the article suggests what he had in mind is that, by holding repeated short-term debt-ceiling increases, he believed he could prevent Trump from blowing up his relationship with Democrats. Nowhere in the article does Schumer make demands of Trump, nor does he threaten default.

If Donald Trump, who is not the type to suffer in silence, was being extorted by Congress with the threat of default, common sense dictates that he would have said something about it. The revisionist take would have you believe Democrats successfully held the debt ceiling hostage under Donald Trump multiple times without Trump uttering a word of complaint, or anybody in the press corps covering the drama.

This obviously never happened. And the fact Republicans are only able to produce a single contemporaneous news article to even hint it might have happened underscores the ridiculousness of the idea.

You can certainly make an argument that Democrats have no practical alternative but to give in to debt-ceiling extortion. I think this argument understates the risk that, by enshrining it, it both perverts the Constitution and creates a regular game of chicken that is highly likely to end in disaster when eventually neither party is willing to be the one to swerve first. Among other things, this argument fails to anticipate what Republicans in Congress will do the next time a Democratic president needs a debt-ceiling hike. The answer, almost certainly, is another crisis. But a case could be made that putting that problem off to the future is better than default.

In any case, we need to be clear about what is happening. McCarthy is not horse-trading with Biden. He is extorting him. He might wish to pretend, à la Michael Corleone, that he is no different than any other powerful man, like a senator or a president. But he doesn’t want to hide it too much, because his power in this situation derives from letting it be known he is very much willing to inflict horrible pain upon innocent victims to get what he wants.

The Media Is Normalizing Debt-Ceiling Extortion