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.

Cross one more off the list

Rand Paul votes to dishonor the country, wreck its credit, and tank the world economy. Not gonna be President.

Glad to see that Rand Paul, as well as Ted Cruz, voted to dishonor the country, wreck its credit, and tank the world economy. The list of Republicans who might actually get elected President in 2016 continues to shrink. (And that’s leaving aside the delicious but implausible prospect of a Jesse Ventura/Howard Stern third-party ticket.)


Update  Make that two more. Purported grown-up Paul Ryan (who’s always struck me more as a five-year-old wearing her mother’s high heels) also voted for national bankruptcy and disgrace. Since he’s a favorite of the plutocracy, I doubt the Chamber would really withhold its cash were he the nominee. But it seems to me that Hillary could pound him into the ground with it.

When thieves fall out …

Part of the reason for the policy success of the Tea Party crowd is the willingness of the people who pretend to be the adult supervision in the GOP - especially the business lobbies - to tolerate Tea Party nonsense. Combined with the willingness of the ultras to “primary” anyone who casts a sane vote, that means that the lunatics get to run the asylum.

The moral, for those of us who used to be occasional split-ticket voters - I supported Agnew (against a frank segregationist), Mathias, Brooke, and Hatch - is never, never, ever to vote for a Republican for any office, until some Heracles comes along to clean out the Republican stables. (Come to think of that, the Clean Water Act would almost certainly prevent doing it the way Heracles did it, using a navigable river.)

But a key factor in changing the behavior of Congressional Republicans would be a change in the existing asymmetric threat structure: voting against the crazies risks a primary, while voting with them risks nothing. That’s why it matters that, even as lunatic basecamp Heritage Action “key-voted” a vote against ending the shutdown and avoiding default, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce “key-voted” a vote for it. Of course, it matters enormously whether that symbolic gesture is backed by a credible threat of turning off the money spigot, and from this distance I can’t tell; if most of the House Republican Conference votes (symbolically) for default, will that mean that those Members aren’t eligible for truckloads of business cash?

Even at a merely symbolic level, though, this has to score as good news. As in the Syrian case, it’s remarkable how a President and an Administration everyone agrees is so maladroit seems to keep coming up with such unexpectedly good outcomes.

Footnote Note the heading. I don’t regard the Chamber’s plutocratic, anti-labor, anti-poor-people, anti-regulatory agenda as in any way morally superior to the Tea Party mishegas. But any breakdown in the alliance between the pure plutocrats and the theocrat/racist/”peasants-with-pitchforks” is good for the rest of us. Speaking of theocrats, did anyone else notice that both parties seemed happy to ignore the Catholic Bishops’ willingness to keep poor people hungry, and wreck the country, in order to deny women reproductive choice?

Second footnote As to the dishonest use of “conscience clause” to mean that bishops rather than patients should decide matters of medical care, when’s the last time a Catholic hospital respected the conscientious beliefs of the health-care providers who work there, as opposed to insisting that everyone adhere to Church dogma regardless of individual belief?




The 14th Amendment (non)Option

The President can no more borrow money on his own say-so than he can raise taxes on his own say-so. Both powers are clearly assigned to the Congress. So the “14th Amendment Option” is entirely imaginary.

The Constitution assigns to the Congress the power to “borrow money on the credit of the United States.” (Art 1, Sec. 8, second clause.) That’s right after the power to tax.

The President can no more borrow money on his own authority than he can impose taxes on his own authority. Any attempt to do so would be a clear violation of the Constitution.

It is not the case that the debt ceiling is a statutory control imposed on an otherwise empowered President. The Congress used to authorize debt issuance on a case-by-case basis, the way it commissions officers. Then it switched to authorizing debt issuance up to a fixed limit. But without Congressional authorization the Constitution does not allow the President to borrow money. Period.

The 14th Amendment says that the validity of the debt shall not be
questioned. It does not give the President any authority to do anything whatever. If the Republicans allow the government to run out of money, the Treasury has to stop writing checks.

Yes, that’s a bad outcome, which is why we should do everything we can to put pressure on Congressional Republicans to do the right thing. Inventing imaginary ways out of the problem just tells the infants then can keep on making messes because the grown-ups are available to clean up after them.

Update Yes, some of the lunatics have gamed this out. Sarah Palin says that it would be an impeachable offense either for the President to not pay the debt or to borrow to pay it past the limit set by Congress. 

Ben Franklin on John Boehner

Concerning “compromise.”

John Boehner’s ceaseless complaints that the President and the Democrats are acting irresponsibly by refusing to offer him concessions to stop doing what he never should have started to do - damage the national interest by shutting down the government and threaten the national credit and honor by risking default - reminds me of a story Benjamin Franklin told about the behavior of the Townsend Government with respect to the Stamp Tax. Having failed to collect the tax, the ministry offered a compromise: they would repeal the tax if the colonists would pay for the cost of printing the now-useless stamps.

The whole Proceeding would put one in Mind of the Frenchman that used to accost English and other Strangers on the Pont-Neuf, with many Compliments, and a red hot Iron in his Hand; “Pray Monsieur Anglois,” says he, “Do me the Favour to let me have the Honour of thrusting this hot Iron into your Backside?”

“Zoons, what does the Fellow mean! Begone with your Iron or I’ll break your Head!”

“Nay Monsieur,” replies he, “if you do not chuse it, I do not insist upon it. But at least, you will in Justice have the Goodness to pay me something for the heating of my Iron.”


The Dems’ sequester demands set up a clean CR and debt ceiling extension as a compromise. Happy now, Mr. Speaker?

A recently translated Qumran fragment contains an element of the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai that somehow failed to make it through the redaction process.

And it came to pass after forty days, that Moses descended from the mountain, and spake unto the Children of Israel, saying, “Verily, I bring unto you good news, and I bring also bad news.”

And the Children of Israel spoke with one voice, saying, “Tell unto us the good news first.”

And Moses replied and said, “I got Him down to ten.”

And the Children of Israel said unto Moses, “That is indeed good news. O Moses, is the bad news as bad as the good news is good?”

And the face of Moses was grave as he replied, “Yea, verily.”

And the Children of Israel moaned, and said, “Tell unto us the bad news.”

And Moses wept, saying, “Adultery’s still on the list.”

Bargaining, as Moses discovered, is a process of give and take. One reason the continuing resolution/debt ceiling imbroglio has been so hard to resolve - above and beyond the fundamental institutional insanity of the Republican Party - has been that the Teahadis started out with a list of ridiculous demands, and set the process up so that doing the normal and necessary things required to keep the government functioning counted as a “concession” on their part, which needed, for their honor, to be “balanced” by some concession from the President and the Democrats.

“We’re not going to be disrespected,”Stutzman said. “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

That, it seems to me, is the background to the Democrats’ sudden demand that the sequester budget levels be put on the bargaining table, and Lindsay Graham’s whining about “moving the goalposts.”

Of course, it would be wonderful if the poll numbers had really made the Republicans desperate enough to concede something on spending. But in any case, the bargaining range is no longer between the Republicans’ extortion demands and the Democrats’ refusal to pay ransom, in which case a clean CR and debt ceiling extension would count as a complete defeat for the Republicans. Now the bargaining range contains actual concessions by Republicans, which makes the obvious, logical, rational outcome to the whole unnecessary affair a compromise.

No need need to thank us, Mr. Speaker. All part of our service with a smile.

Viva Pelosi!

Pelosi: latest debt-ceiling offer one of the worst GOP ideas: “with stiff competition always.”

As a Baltimorean, I have long thought that only three immortals had ever come out of my native city: Brooks Robinson, Ray Berry, and H.L. Mencken. (No, I’m not forgetting Poe; I only wish I could.)

But Nancy Pelosi surely deserves a place in that Hall of Fame. Just getting Obamacare through puts her in the Sam Rayburn class of Speakers, but she’s never been known as one of the great Washington wits. Today, however, the House Republicans, looking at polls suggesting that their current antics might actually cost them their majority next year, made an offer: a six-week debt-ceiling extension, coupled with a permanent change to deny the Treasury the flexibility without which we would have defaulted last May. Pelosi didn’t miss a beat. She called it one of the Republicans’ worst ideas: “with stiff competition always.”

Forcing a clean debt-ceiling extension through the Senate

Will Reid force Republicans to vote on a clean debt-ceiling bill? Here’s hoping. Bonus: filibuster reform.

It’s too easy for people not actually in the Capitol Hill maelstrom to play at “Congressional chess,” imagining brilliant procedural finesses they don’t have to actually execute. Most of the clever stuff doesn’t come off, and it’s impossible, from any distance, to tell a real threat from typical bargaining-ploy b.s.

Still, this idea seems to have some potential: Senate Democrats are going to bring a clean debt-limit increase to the floor this week. (While they’re at it, why not add a clean CR to the mix? There’s probably a good answer to that, which I don’t know, which was my point about “Congressional chess.”)

That will force every Republican Senator to vote for or against default. If the Republicans filibuster - and it’s hard to see Ted Cruz not filibustering - Reid seems to think he has the six Republicans he’d need to break the filibuster.

And if he doesn’t, he can make this the occasion for finally reforming the filibuster rule; it’s easy to imagine Feinstein, Baucus, and Levin, who were reluctant to pull the trigger last time, deciding that if the filibuster threatens the full faith and credit of the United States it will have to go. That seems to me like a feature of the idea rather than a bug.

A Senate-passed bill, of course, just puts the ball back in Boehner’s court. I don’t believe for a moment there are going to be enough House Republican signatures on a discharge petition to force a vote, but at some point even the “objective” media will stop reporting that there’s some sort of dispute going on, with appropriate quotes from each side, and start reporting that John Boehner, by refusing to bring to a vote a clean CR and a clean debt-ceiling bill as passed by the Senate, is causing a completely unnecessary crisis.

Foootnote Boehner’s refusal to bring “clean” bills to the floor seems to me convincing evidence that he’s lying when he says the votes aren’t there; Wall Street isn’t completely powerless, and not everyone in his conference is an unpatriotic extremist. If Boehner could muster a majority against those bills on an up-or-down vote, he wouldn’t have to rely on his control of the agenda. In the immortal words of Lyndon Johnson, “Until you have the votes, you talk. When you have the votes, you vote.”

This just in: default is bad.

Will the United States avoid default by refusing to pay its obligations as they come due?

Tweet from Megan McArdle <@asymmetricinfo>:

Hey, quick reminder: you know what’s bad for the economy, and your country’s reputation? Defaulting on the debt.

Megan and I disagree on a wide range of topics, and I think she’s fooling herself about the extent to which the libertarian project boils down to a commitment to worsen the income distribution, but when push comes to shove she’s reality-based.

That matters even more when others on her side of the Red/Blue Divide clearly aren’t. The current Republican line (cf. responses to Megan’s Tweet, or the latest nonsense from the Capitol Hill Republicans and the Feldstein/Mankiw Axis of Weevils) is that the Treasury will always have enough money to pay interest on bonds and bills, simply by stiffing its other creditors (employees, pensioners, contractors, and suppliers) thus avoiding “default” as defined by the Credit Default Swap markets.

This reminds me of a joke that went around during the first New York City financial crisis: that the City would avoid default by refusing to pay its obligations. But it’s not a joke (or, rather, it’s a joke in very bad taste) when it involves the credit of the United States of America.

You can choose to believe that defaulting on the nation’s legal obligations that don’t happen to be called “bonds” or “bills” won’t influence the confidence of world financial markets in Treasury debt, but that is what Mark Twain called “a vagrant opinion, without visible means of support.” But whatever its practical implications, not paying your bills when they come due - given that you have the capacity to pay them - is deeply, unforgivably dishonorable.

I only wish Megan had more company on her side of the aisle. And I hope that her lack of company makes her reconsider whether the Red jersey is one she’s really willing to wear.

Attack of the Giant Killer Debt Limit Tomatoes IV

Can the US Treasury really not prioritize payments in the event of a refusal to raise the debt ceiling?

(For previous episodes, see here, II - here , III - here , and lots more and better by fellow RBC bloggers)

Jack Balkin concludes a good post on the distinction-without-a difference between a government shutdown without a budget resolution and a debt ceiling crisis with one:

Let’s assume that’s what people are fearing- that the debt ceiling crisis will not turn out to be the same thing as a shutdown, and therefore will have far worse consequences.

If that is so, the President’s correct strategy is fourfold.

(1) announce that you will not bargain over the debt ceiling under any circumstances.
(2) make preparations if you can’t pay all your bills but don’t tell anyone about your contingency plans;
(3) emphasize the difference between a debt ceiling crisis and an “orderly government shutdown;” and
(4) emphasize how terrible a debt ceiling crisis will be and how unprepared the country is for it. That is especially so even if you have made preparations.

Which, it seems, is exactly what the Obama Administration is doing.

Against the million of bits spent on Beltway augury reading the entrails of chickenhawks, there is very little discussion of the mechanics of default since the platinum coin was taken off the table by the White House and the Fed. Matt Yglesias links to a report (leak?) that the Treasury actually has no way of prioritising its payments: it´s the computer, Guvnor. Quote from analysts at RBC Capital Markets:

The Treasury’s systems do not clearly mark what scheduled payments are for what reasons, so it is impractical to try to prioritize payments.

But that can´t be quite right. The Treasury does have a way of shutting down half the government, the discretionary programmes; it already did so in 1995. There´s an interesting situation (in the sense of three of the four bomb interlocks going) question if mandatory programmes (≈60% of the budget) plus debt servicing (≈6%) are greater than the incoming tax receipts (≈68%), but it´s clearly close and maybe just manageable. Don´t tell me it´s impossible technically to wall off and meet the debt payments - you could do it at a pinch with handwritten cheques.

None of this makes a difference to the shock quite probably coming very soon to US citizens and world capital markets on default day. Jack Lew may have to announce that from the following morning the government of the most powerful nation and mightiest economy on Earth won´t be meeting a third of its legal payment obligations, until a bunch of loons elected by mistake to the US Congress in the name of a ¨Republican Party¨ decide to stop wrecking the Republic.