Whew! What a relief. A deal was finally made at the eleventh hour on raising the debt ceiling, saving the U.S. from defaulting on its national debt. Come on. Anyone who understands how this over-dramatized, repetitive, political sideshow is played wasn’t a bit surprised by the outcome.
Legislation requiring congressional approval to increase the debt ceiling was passed in 1917 to allow the Treasury Department to issue Liberty Bonds financing World War I. Since then, this latest incident marks the 79th time Congress has faced a similar showdown. The score is now 79-0 in favor of raising the debt ceiling because it would be idiotic for politicians to undermine the “full faith and credit” of the United States in world financial markets. The very prospect of it can lower the U.S. government’s international credit rating, instantly raising the interest rate we’d have to pay on new Treasury issues. This law is now just a useless formality that kicks off the same political play-acting whenever it’s applied. The time to limit government spending is at the front end of the budget process when Congress appropriates funding. Not raising the debt ceiling after the fact is like lavishly spending at a fancy restaurant then refusing to pay the check.
Republicans withheld their votes on the debt ceiling as leverage for getting concessions from Democrats on cuts in excessive federal spending. For months Biden insisted on what he called a “clean debt ceiling bill.” By that he meant absolutely no compromise with Republicans on spending. That triggered the extended impasse. Republicans re-opened the negotiations by passing a House bill, over party-line Democrat opposition, listing their proposed spending cuts. To pass it, Speaker Kevin McCarthy had to meet the demands of ultra-conservatives in the Freedom Caucus for spending cuts he knew the Democrats would never accept. Without the votes of that group on the party’s right fringe, the GOP lacks a working majority in the House on this and other issues. Without a working House majority, the Republicans are powerless.
The hyper left-wing Democrat Progressive Caucus’s 95 or so members adamantly opposed any limit on spending, threatening to vote against a final compromise. Across the aisle, conservative Republicans threatened to vote against a compromise that lacked significant spending cuts. Both sides played chicken to see who would blink first on a debt default.
I recognize that some politicians are uncompromisingly principled, even if unrealistic, like Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders. Others like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the hysterical progressive left and Marjorie Taylor Greene on the bonkers radical right are showboating firebrands who love to perform in the media spotlight, making absurd statements to draw attention. Another faction includes Republican and Democrat extremists in safe congressional districts and states who fear that even the slightest appearance of moderation on their part would invite a primary challenge from another extremist waiting in the wings to take their seat.
Unfortunately — from my perspective as a partisan Republican — with Democrats also controlling the presidency they have the upper hand in these battles. In the end, Democrat leaders in both chambers precisely counted noses allowing just enough Democrats to vote with Republicans to pass a compromise bill that satisfied neither side. Republicans playing the weaker hand with fragile party unity and less control over their fringe got as much as they could in the bargain, which was better than nothing.
Some on the Republican right actually wanted to bring on a default crisis, wishfully thinking they’d win public approval that would backfire on Biden and the Dems, somehow leading to fiscal reform to reign in our spiraling national debt. Conversely, in the event of a (temporary) default, Democrat strategists were poised to claim “obstinate” Republicans were to blame and, when that narrative was echoed by the dominant liberal media, they expected most of the public to buy it. They were probably right.
The ultra-thin Republican majority in the House is powerless to advance its legislative agenda. President Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Shumer, and radical progressives who drive the Democrat agenda rule with an iron hand and have stonewalled any significant Republican attempts at bipartisan compromise. In retrospect it’s laughable that Biden, who has enthusiastically adopted the radical progressive agenda, campaigned for president as a centrist “uniter.” The best the GOP can do is play defense with the help of one or two Democrat moderates in the Senate.
It’s said that politics isn’t about principle; it’s about compromise. But that’s only partially true. In states with a dominant single party like California where Republicans are an endangered species (and, at least for the time being, in Colorado), progressive socialists can follow their misguided principles with no need to compromise when they hold total control of government.
Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.
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