Advancing a Free Society

Debt Ceiling Impasse: The usual rules met novel political circumstances

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

There is a rising chorus of those who believe that the Tea Party and those in the Republican Party who are friendly to its ideas are squarely to blame for the current impasse on the debt ceiling deal. One of the most incendiary notes came from David Brooks at the New York Times last week. Although he did not call the Tea Party by name, he did not need to. He called them a lot of other unflattering names, though, including “fanatics.” He went so far as to declare, “The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency.” As I read Brooks’s column, I think I could hear the pained sighs that escaped him as he wrote it. Speaker Boehner’s announcement this weekend that he was backing away from a package that includes large-scale entitlement reform and tax increases probably left Brooks apoplectic.

But the trial in the current debt ceiling negotiations is not solely, or even primarily, the product of Michelle Bachmann and company.

Independent of the size and power of the right flank of the House Republicans, we are confronted with the most politically toxic combination of political party control of Congress and the White House for debt ceiling negotiations. And the kicker is that it is completely novel in history of modern American politics. Since the end of the Civil War, when the modern Republican and Democratic national parties were born, we have never had a Democratic president, a Democratic majority in control of the Senate, and a Republican House. In fact, the only concurrence of a Democrat president with a divided Congress since the Civil War was during the first administration of Grover Cleveland from 1885-1889, when the Democratic president governed with a Republican Senate and a Democratic House (49th and 50th Congresses)

The problem, as far as raising the debt ceiling goes, is that when the usual rules of raising the debt limit are applied to these unusual political circumstances, we wind up with maximum disagreement on policy with little political reason for cooperation.

Lost in much of the discussion of the debt ceiling increase is acknowledgement of the simple truth that members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, whether of the political far left or the far right, do not like to cast votes to increase the debt ceiling. Since 2002, which was the first time a statutory debt ceiling increase was required after the budget surpluses of the late 1990s and very early 2000s, members of Congress have dealt with this problem in the following way: When push eventually comes to shove on the debt ceiling, the party in control of each chamber usually casts all the votes needed to increase the debt limit.

For example, in 2009 and 2010, with the Democrats in control of Congress, all the votes for increasing the debt limit in the House and all but one in the Senate were cast by Democrats. In 2004, under unified Republican government in Washington, the 208 House votes and 50 of the 52 Senate votes for increasing the limit came from Republicans. In 2006, with Republicans still in control of Congress, the House used procedural maneuvers to approve a debt ceiling increase without a roll call vote but all 52 Senate votes in favor were Republican votes.

Today, though, the Republican majority in the House is being asked to increase the debt ceiling by over $2 trillion at the request of a Democrat in the White House. Tea Party influence aside, this was never going to be easy. Republicans, at least nominally the party of small government and fiscal responsibility, have the opportunity to extract concessions on reductions in government spending and can exert control over any changes to tax rates and revenues. We should not be surprised that they decided to use political power when it was given to them.

Yes, agreement on the debt ceiling has emerged out of divided government before, even out of the compound type of divided government we have now. President Reagan and the Republican Senate and Democrat-controlled House of the 97th-99th Congresses (1981-1986) raised the debt limit 14 times in that five-year period.

But the combination of a Republican president working with a Democratic-controlled chamber of Congress produces more easily yielding positions among the congressional negotiators. House Democrats insisting that they aren’t going to raise the debt limit until the country agrees to spend even more money than the Republican president requested (and arguments about defense budget cuts get an iffy reception among independent voters) has much less political traction than the argument Republicans are currently putting forward.

The current debt and budget fight partially resembles the political battles between Clinton and the Gingrich Republicans in 1995 and early 1996. Like the 104th House, the Republicans in the 112th House are trying to pull the final deal to the right without the counter pressure of a Republican president to coax cooperation.

But this deal is politically harder than even the 1995-1996 debt ceiling and budget fight. Fifteen years ago, Clinton was negotiating with a solidly Republican Congress. For all the fissures among the congressional Republicans in the House and Senate then, the majority leadership in the Senate was at least swimming toward the same bank of the river as the House leadership. Today, it’s the opposite.

Senate Democrats must shoulder the burden of passing the debt ceiling increase through the Senate. Not only are they the majority party in the chamber, but they’re working with a Democratic president. And Republican senators are likely to be uncooperative. Over the last decade, when in the minority, Republican senators have voted for the debt ceiling increase only at the request of a Republican president.

Last Thursday’s announcement by Republican Sens. Jim DeMint and Sen. Olympia Snowe, at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum in the party, that they would not vote for a debt limit increase that does not include a balanced budget amendment, suggests that Senate Republicans are already positioning themselves to vote against the increase en mass. While enough Republicans will probably vote for cloture to clear the way for a vote on the debt limit increase itself, most of these Republicans will probably vote against the actual bill.

The upshot is that while Republicans in the House are heading hard right, Democrats in the Senate are trying to pull the final deal further toward the left. Congress and the president have agreed to raise the debt ceiling before, but it has never been quite like this.

The staggering size of our accumulated debt and the influence of the Tea Party have, undoubtedly, made getting to a deal more challenging than it otherwise would have been and will shape the details of the final deal. But they would not, by themselves, have produced such difficult and protracted negotiations.

The real challenge in striking a debt limit deal today has everything to do with a novel and politically troublesome combination of party control in Washington. It has nothing to do with the Republicans’ inability to be a “normal party,” as David Brooks laments.

And all this is ultimately an arresting reminder of why it matters who we send to Washington to do our nation’s business.