How should Congressional Dems handle the debt ceiling?

Make a long list of demands, and choose a shorter list of “must-haves,” with an eye to electoral appeal as well as substantive advantage.

I had missed this Kevin Drum post from last month (Note to self: Never miss a Kevin Drum post!) and the WashPo article it refers to.


The Federal Government will hit the debt ceiling sometime this fall, and Democrats need to consider whether to pass a “clean” increase or instead to hold it hostage to various things we want. Kevin is (tentatively) on the side of adhering to the norm of not using the threat of national insolvency as a political lever.

I might agree, if such a norm existed. But Republicans smashed it all to pieces when Obama was President, so respecting it now looks too much like unilateral disarmament.

It seems to me the right question is: What should Democrats in the House demand as the price of passing a “must-pass” bill? My answer would be: Demand everything, including the kitchen sink, and negotiate from there, with a few “must-have” demands.

Possible demands can be roughly sorted into two bins; for each bin I’ve provided possible examples.

  • Procedural/rule-of-law/democracy items
  1. Compliance with all Congressional subpoenas
  2. Production of Trump’s tax returns
  3. A Special Counsel to inquire into violations of the Emoluments clauses
  4. Defensive measures against foreign interference in U.S. elections, including a stronger FARA
  5. A new Voting Rights Act, with a standard for the maximum waiting time at the polls and an explicit ban on using criminal justice financial obligations to deny the right to vote
  6. An explicit ban on partisan gerrymandering in Congressional elections (clearly within one of Congress’s enumerated powers and thus fairly bullet-proof in court)
  7. Taking the citizenship question off the 2020 Census
  • Substantive policy items
  1. Card check
  2. $15 minimum wage
  3. Banning family separation at the border
  4. Disaster relief including California and Puerto Rico
  5. More money for Head Start
  6. Fiscal incentives for states to adopt Medicaid expansion
  7. Reversal of the Trump tax breaks for returns with more than $1M in annual income
  8. A down payment on college debt relief
  9. Medicare buy-in
  10. More money for the opioid crisis
  11. A program to reverse the rise in maternal and infant mortality
  12. [Fill in the blank] about women’s pay equity
  13. [Fill in the blank] about global warming/climate change
  14. Ending support for Saudi Arabian warmaking in Yemen
  15. Rural broadband
  16. Postal banking in any county with more than x% of households unbanked
  17. Arbitration reforms to avoid people’s being required to sign their rights away

I don’t see any harm in making the list fairly comprehensive, with appeals to a variety of interests and opinions. Then the question is what to absolutely hold out for.

Trump’s tax returns are the obvious candidate from the RoL list, just because he’d have very limited public sympathy if he tanked the economy to protect himself from corruption charges. But forbidding the Executive from spending any money to challenge Congressional subpoenas in court, and providing stiff statutory penalties both on an individual level and via withholding appropriated funds for non-compliance, would certainly be high on the list. From the substantive-policy column, I’d be tempted to hold out for card check, since I agree with Kevin that union power is the key both to reversing the increase in income inequality and in deciding who wins elections. But that’s probably a bridge too far: the Republicans would almost certainly prefer to crash the country’s credit than give working people a fair break. So pick whichever two or three of the rest poll best.

This can’t be done overnight, so both the think tanks and the committees need to get to work ASAP on putting the list together and writing the necessary legislative language.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

8 thoughts on “How should Congressional Dems handle the debt ceiling?”

  1. This “weapon” should only be used, if it must be used at all, only for legislation that has been widely discussed in detail, and has broad public support. Arrogance and abuse will just lead to further abuse and contempt for Government.

  2. Adam Silverman, over at Balloon Juice, makes a persuasive point (5/6/19): once norms have been smashed,you can’t go back to where you were. The “new normal” at this point includes Congress withholding raising the debt ceiling until certain demands are met. That’s not the way it should be, and certainly, once the ship of state has regained some degree of steadiness, Congress can handle the matter legislatively by passing a law requiring that all debt ceiling limits be managed with a “clean” resolution or perhaps that the ceiling be raised automatically.

    For now, however, passing a “clean” rise as if we had a normal president observing the responsibilities of his office and a Senate doing its job is equivalent to showing up to a gang war with one’s dueling pistols and a promise not to turn around until whoever is doing the counting gets to ten.

    And, as noted, the first list consists of items within Congress’ purview, so it makes sense to tie Congress’ action on the debt ceiling to fulfillment of the president’s responsibilities, at the very least. In academic terms, it’s simply a matter of requiring him to fulfill the prerequisites.

    (By the way, does anyone know the term for the person who presides over a duel and does the counting? A few minutes of searching in hopes of using the correct term for my analogy turned up nothing. Not that I have any immediate practical use for the information, but it would be nice to know.)

  3. From Wikipedia: For a pistol duel, the two would typically start at a pre-agreed length of ground, which would be measured out by the seconds and marked, often with swords stuck in the ground (referred to as “points”). At a given signal, often the dropping of a handkerchief, the principals could advance and fire at will. This latter system reduced the possibility of cheating, as neither principal had to trust the other not to turn too soon. Another system involved alternate shots being taken, beginning with the challenged firing first.[citation needed]

    Also from Wikipedia, the participants in the duel are a “second” for each duellist, and a physician. In the days when people dueled with swords, the problem of turning around too soon (referred to at the time as “tortious torsion”) didn’t exist. The passage quoted above makes it seem that there may have been a problem with tortious torsion in the early days of pistol duels that was solved by having the duellists face each other and wait for a hanky to drop. (As shown in movies, none of which I can remember, except for The Duellist, which I’ve never seen.) It may seem strange that in a battle to preserve one’s honor one could do something as dishonorable as cheat, but there were a lot of strange things in the 18th and 19th centuries. (See, for ex., A. Lincoln: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces…”.)

  4. My sentiment, from far away, is that Congress should only use this nuclear threat to protect the rule of law and democracy in the Republic against the real and present danger of Trump’s tyrannical kleptocracy: the first list. (I would include here the ban on family separation at the border, a human rights issue.) They can properly do so because the Supreme Court, which is supposed to protect these constitutional values, is now unfit for purpose and has become an upmarket partisan dogsbody for kleptocrats. The second list are IMHO policy options that progressives like and conservatives don’t, to be settled through a functioning democratic process. If you are going that way, include a reproductive rights bill entrenching Roe.

    Democrats can throw in the permanent abolition of the poisonous debt ceiling as part of the deal. You can do it the German way, by automatically including the requisite borrowing authority in the budget or continuing resolution.

  5. I find myself in somewhat rare agreement with RonWarrick and disagreement with Wimberley and lcoleman. I’m generally opposed to immoral actions justified by immoral actions on the other side. If my neighbors poison my dog, have I lost anything if I don’t poison their cat? Perhaps, but it’s not going to end well for neighborhood fauna, particularly if I’m more fond of my dog than they are of their cat. And as a Democrat, I’m definitely more fond of functioning government than Repubs are.

    I’m pretty sure that I disagree with tying the debt to things like Trump’s taxes. Dems have every right to the taxes and oversight in general, stretching from Washington to Harding to Nixon to Obama. I fear it may weaken their claim if they use a hostage to get it. I also oppose tying the debt ceiling to something Dems could obtain legislatively, but for the fact they don’t have the votes. That’s what Repubs did; it was wrong then, and wrong now. On an issue like family separation, the Dems’ position is supported by a majority of voters, and ostensibly by Repubs in Congress, in contrast to repealing Obamacare and whatever else Repubs have held hostage, which was a minority position (and not universally supported by congressional Repubs, though they had to go along). I guess that gives Dems the moral high ground that Repubs didn’t have, but it still feels strange, like showing up at the returns desk at Target brandishing a gun, just in case Target wanted to renege on its return policy.

    But here’s an idea that may be brilliant, but probably has holes I don’t know about. Tie an increase in the debt ceiling to a law that makes raising the debt ceiling unnecessary, as referenced by lcoleman above. The Dems lose a weapon they don’t really want to use, while disarming the unprincipled immoral nihilist anti-government types on the other side who’d be happy to see the whole thing burn to the ground. (The “whole thing” being the USA.)

    1. Apologies for missing that JW came up with the “tie raising the debt ceiling to abolishing it” before I did. If we had the edit button, I’d definitely change my last paragraph. But, at least we’ve got two votes, so maybe it’s a good idea after all.

    2. I would be in favor of eventually tying an increase in the debt ceiling to a law that makes it unnecessary, but not until our current national emergency is over. We are faced with a president who is defying the legitimate and legal demands/instructions/requests of Congress. It’s foolish for Congress to give up what is at this point its one possible bit of leverage, particularly since the Democrats do not have all of Congress, and the Senate leadership has shown that it is fine with bending the rules to suit the party in power, as Merrick Garland can attest. Procedures and precedents, as anyone who has been in administration for any length of time can attest, can be very helpful, even if you objected strenuously when they were used by people on the other side.

      It would, I think, be useful to distinguish between that which is immoral and that which is contrary to agreed-upon procedure. I don’t think we’re proposing the equivalent of poisoning cats here. There is nothing inherently immoral in a setup in which the legislative branch controls the money going to the executive. In fact, that is precisely the system we have. The difference is that the practice used to be for the legislature to automatically approve rises in the debt ceiling, but the Republicans have created a new practice. All right, then. Let’s go with it. The Democrats can’t change that practice now, since they only control one house of Congress, but down the road they can aim for a time to consider and discuss and legislate their preferred practice. In the meantime, they should use the weapons their opponents have so kindly left upon the battlefield.

      1. Well, you’re not wrong, though I wish you were (and I suspect you wish the same thing). Dems can’t save democracy by themselves; honoring rules while the other side refuses to follow them is fruitless, even if it means that Dems will be more active participants in democracy’s demise. The only way out is removing Repubs from power and then hope it will be possible to restore something like the “old” days.

        But thinking about the old days raises questions. Southern Dems were authoritarian white supremacists then, and the only change since then is that the donkeys are now elephants. And they’ve spread outside the South, with much more infrastructure than before. (A whole tee-vee network for one.) It’s going to get worse before it gets better, but what’s “better” going to look like?

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