Jonathan Bernstein: Democrats, don’t repeat this debt-ceiling debacle

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We can finally exhale. The House of Representatives passed an agreement to suspend the debt ceiling until 2025, and the Senate is expected to approve the measure in the coming days. Congress — Republicans in Congress — aren’t going to blow up the economy. This time.

Because make no mistake, this vote was not a sure thing. Had Speaker Kevin McCarthy managed things less adeptly; had President Joe Biden been more anxious about his standing within his party; had the negotiators for McCarthy and the White House been less skilled; had former President Donald Trump stumped hard against the deal: There was a real chance of something going badly wrong.

A default on the nation’s debt would have been calamitous. And for what? The debt limit has no positive or useful function. No other nation has a comparable rule requiring separate legislative permission to pay for already-approved spending measures. Budget process experts and economists consider it utterly useless. As journalist Kai Ryssdal said Wednesday: “The debt limit is just so so so freakin’ stupid and we’ve got so many other things we need to grapple with. What a waste of time.”

The good news is that after this near-debacle, Democrats are going to be even more convinced that the debt limit has to go. As with many policy issues, it’s less a question of the party’s preference of what should be done than it is about how high it is on the agenda. And this particular policy is tricky, because while it will require unified Democratic government to eliminate it, the limit only becomes a problem when we have divided government. So Democrats would need to decide to get rid of the debt ceiling whenever they next control both houses of Congress and the White House, in anticipation of when they don’t.

Still, I expect that Democrats will be far more eager to eliminate the debt limit the next time they have the opportunity.

As for Republicans? That’s the bad news. Granted, it isn’t clear that they got anything in the debt limit deal that they wouldn’t have won during negotiations over government spending this fall. But McCarthy is going to push an interpretation of events that this was a big win for his party. And so far Republican critics are complaining that he didn’t bargain hard enough. That might lead Republicans to believe that the debt ceiling is a good lever with which to achieve policy goals.

What’s more, the one group that might have persuaded Republicans to eliminate the debt limit, large business interests, are probably more convinced than ever that they don’t need to worry about it, believing a default will always be averted.

That means we are almost certain to face more debt limit showdowns, at least until the next time Democrats have House and Senate majorities and a Democrat in the White House. But probably no longer than that.

And until then, we’ll have to hope that Republican brinkmanship never progresses to default. Unfortunately, that isn’t very reassuring.


(Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.