It's Time to Kill the Debt Ceiling

There are a number of strange aspects to the negotiation/maneuvering/posturing now taking place between the White House and congressional Republicans about the Austerity Trap (a.k.a. fiscal cliff), but one that hasn't gotten much attention is the disagreement over the debt ceiling. As part of their initial offer, the White House included something I and other people have been advocating for some time: Just get rid of the debt ceiling altogether. The Republicans, particularly in the House, don't seem to be interested. But we should take a good look at how crazy their position on this issue is.

In an ordinary negotiation, each side has things it wants, while it dislikes some or all of the things the other side wants. A union wants higher wages for its workers, while the company doesn't want to pay the higher wages. You'd rather have your partner do the laundry while you do the dishes, but your partner doesn't like doing the laundry either. The White House wants to increase taxes on the wealthy, which Republicans don't like, while Republicans want cuts to social programs, which the White House doesn't like.

But the debt ceiling is something entirely different. In this case, what Republicans want is the ability to plunge the country into a financial catastrophe, making life miserable for who knows how many Americans. That's what they want. Seriously. You might say, well, all they actually want is the ability to threaten to plunge the country into a financial catastrophe so they can extract concessions, but the threat would be meaningless unless they were willing to follow through on it. So if you wanted to be generous, you could say that what Republicans want in this particular aspect of the negotiation is to maintain their ability to credibly threaten to plunge the country into financial catastrophe.

If the debt ceiling were still what it used to be—nothing more than an opportunity, once a year or so, for the opposition party to give speeches on the floor decrying the majority's profligate ways, followed by a pro forma vote to raise it—then they wouldn't care about maintaining it. They want to keep it because the threat of economic calamity is a weapon they can use to extort policy concessions they wouldn't be able to get otherwise. Grover Norquist even suggested we should have a hostage crisis every month.

In the public part of these negotiations, each side will be making the case for why the things it wants are good and why the things the other side wants are bad. But so far I haven't seen Republicans forced to explain why the debt ceiling is a good thing to have. They might argue that doing away with it once and for all takes power away from Congress and gives it to the president, but that's not true. Congress already has all the power over spending, so it decides whether we're going to need to borrow more money or not. The debt ceiling just makes them take an extra vote on a budget they've already set.

Imagine that you went in to negotiate for a higher salary, and your boss said, "Before we start, you should know that I'm reserving the right to hold a gun to your daughter's head and threaten to kill her if I don't get what I want out of this negotiation. But don't worry—the possibility that I might kill her will really get everyone focused and produce good results for all of us in the end." That's a bit of an extreme analogy—but only a bit.

Eliminating the debt ceiling once and for all may seem like a secondary part of these negotiations, but Democrats really should push it to the forefront. Make Republicans defend the hostage-taking that they did in 2011 and the fact that they want the ability to do it again when it suits them. Maybe then we can finally slay this beast.

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