Lurching from Crisis to Crisis, Congress is Addicted to Cliffs

Lawmakers almost never act until they absolutely must — and even then, they usually punt.

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

WASHINGTON — Congress disposed of a looming global economic catastrophe this week by doing what it does best: Not much.

After weeks of a market-threatening partisan stare-down, Senate leaders struck a not-so-grand bargain that raised the debt ceiling into early December, just two short months away. If history is any guide, lawmakers will then engage in the exact same fight all over again — and may even end up with yet another Band-Aid solution.

That kick-the-can-ever-so-slightly-down-the-road debt deal followed the House’s nonconsideration last week of a bipartisan infrastructure bill after a promised vote. The delay meant blowing through a Sept. 30 deadline to keep federal highway programs funded, but not to worry: Congress bought itself a whole month with a temporary 30-day patch that will give Democrats more time to resolve deep differences among them over a huge social safety net measure that may or may not come together by Oct. 31.

It all unfolded just as Congress narrowly averted a governmentwide shutdown by just hours last week, passing a temporary bill to fund federal agencies through Dec. 2 to give itself more time to haggle over the 12 annual spending bills. That fight will inevitably collide with the battle over the debt limit, the big social policy bill and the infrastructure legislation.

Congress is headed toward more cliffs than Wile E. Coyote.

The House and Senate have a long history of putting off pressing matters until the very last minute, making difficult decisions and casting tough votes only when it is finally and completely unavoidable.

But this current Congress seems particularly paralyzed, given ideological differences among Democrats holding the barest of majorities and entrenched opposition from Republicans who are fixated on next year’s elections and see a little legislative chaos as their return ticket to the majority.

“Washington Democrats are proving they cannot deliver,” Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, declared Thursday on the Senate floor, omitting the fact that he was doing everything in his power to make sure that they did not.

The result is that, rather than strike compromises on pressing issues, lawmakers have grown accustomed to agreeing to disagree, skirting politically difficult decisions and choosing a date in the future when they will be forced to try again, often with the same outcome. No household or business could operate that way, but for Congress, lurching from crisis to crisis is a way of life.

On the plus side for senators, the debt ceiling agreement preserved the Columbus Day recess, which includes a Republican retreat scheduled for next week in Florida and other travel planned by senators. But Christmas is in real trouble.

The debt deal surfaced because Mr. McConnell began to fear that he might have taken his debt-limit intransigence too far, straying a bit too close to the edge of a particularly daunting cliff.

He feared that the two Democratic holdouts in favor of the filibuster — Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — would finally cave to pressure from the rest of their party to approve an exception to the filibuster rules for raising the legal cap on federal borrowing if confronted with an imminent fiscal disaster.

And everyone on Capitol Hill knows that a carve-out for one kind of legislation will ultimately become an avenue for every kind of legislation. Mr. McConnell, who is also very enamored of the filibuster, knew he had to head off that possibility at all costs.

Image

Senator McConnell accused Democrats of not being able deliver an increase in the debt ceiling while using his power to prevent them from doing so.Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

“His No. 1 priority is to protect his instrument of obstruction,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland.

Things are so bad that even the bare-bones debt agreement barely came together. Top lawmakers and their aides spent hours haggling over it, and Republicans struggled to gain commitments from their members to clear the way for a vote.

Most Republicans didn’t want to be anywhere near the debt ceiling increase that has come under attack from former President Donald J. Trump, making it politically radioactive in their eyes. For a time, Republicans weren’t sure they could produce the minimum 10 votes from their side to move it along procedurally.

Take Representative Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota. Approached by reporters, Mr. Cramer launched into extended praise of the short-term debt limit increase proffered by Mr. McConnell. He called it elegant, lauding the Senate leader’s craftiness in preserving the filibuster and depriving Democrats of a potent political argument against his party. It also averted a potential calamitous default. But Mr. Cramer still would not vote to allow it to move forward.

Understand the U.S. Debt Ceiling

Card 1 of 6

What is the debt ceiling? The debt ceiling, also called the debt limit, is a cap on the total amount of money that the federal government is authorized to borrow via U.S. Treasury bills and savings bonds to fulfill its financial obligations. Because the U.S. runs budget deficits, it must borrow huge sums of money to pay its bills.

When will the debt limit be breached? After Senate leaders agreed to a short-term deal to raise the debt ceiling on Oct. 7, the Treasury estimated that the government can continue borrowing through Dec. 3. The deal sets up yet another consequential deadline for the first Friday in December.

Why does the U.S. limit its borrowing? According to the Constitution, Congress must authorize borrowing. The debt limit was instituted in the early 20th century so the Treasury did not need to ask for permission each time it needed to issue bonds to pay bills.

What would happen if the debt limit was hit? Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told Congress that inaction on raising the debt limit could lead to a self-inflicted economic recession and a financial crisis. She also said that failing to raise the debt ceiling could affect programs that help millions of Americans, including delays to Social Security payments.

Do other countries do it this way? Denmark also has a debt limit, but it is set so high that raising it is generally not an issue. Most other countries do not. In Poland, public debt cannot exceed 60 percent of gross domestic product.

What are the alternatives to the debt ceiling? The lack of a replacement is one of the main reasons the debt ceiling has persisted. Ms. Yellen said that she would support legislation to abolish the debt limit, which she described as “destructive.” It would take an act of Congress to do away with the debt limit.

“I don’t think I will,” he said.

In the end, 11 Republicans, including retiring members with nothing to lose and members of the leadership, bit the bullet and sent the bill forward. It ultimately passed with only Democratic votes, and still must be approved by the House before it hits President Biden’s desk. The action is expected next week, mere days before a projected default.

Senator Roy Blunt, the veteran Missouri Republican who is retiring and was one of the 11, spoke for many when he muttered in the hallway: “Can’t explain anything in this place.”

The dysfunction was evidently contagious. Even the subway that ferries lawmakers, staff, media and visitors between the Capitol and the Senate office buildings broke down on Thursday, trapping a couple of luckless riders for a brief period. It, too, had reached its limit.

The underlying debt fight is over whether Democrats will raise the debt ceiling through regular procedures or via a more convoluted budget process, a technical distinction so fine that it is surely indistinguishable to virtually every American not intimately familiar with the Budget Control Act.

“I don’t think they understand it a bit,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, of members of the public. “It is confusing for people who work here.”

“The debt ceiling debate is absurd with a capital A,” said Senator Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who leads the Finance Committee.

But it does have political implications for both parties, hence the inability of Congress to collect itself and perform a function that used to be routine and bipartisan, and that all members of Congress understand needs to happen.

But Republicans want Democrats to own the debt and then hammer them on it in next year’s midterms; Democrats want Republicans to take responsibility for spending during the Trump era, when Republicans controlled Congress and to avoid the hammering they are certain to get.

“I have no words to describe how ridiculous it is that the debt ceiling has become a political tool,” said Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico. “I just hope we don’t get to the point where Republicans actually push us over the limit and people’s retirements disappear in order for them to sober up.”

Leave a Reply