So it has come to this. House Republicans are about to force the U.S. government to default on paying its debts — obligations that the Congress voted to make. They bluster that they will blow up the economy, tank the dollar, and destroy America’s good faith and credit unless they get their way — even as they are bitterly divided about what “their way” means. The stakes are unfathomable — and so it is worth being clear about what is happening.
According to the Treasury secretary, June 1 is the likely date when the U.S. will hit the so-called “debt ceiling” unless Congress acts. The debt ceiling is a silly gimmick that limits what the U.S. can borrow, even to pay the obligations that the Congress has already committed. Under Donald Trump — who ran up a staggering percentage of the U.S. national debt because of his tax cuts and military and pandemic spending — Democrats agreed to raise the debt ceiling repeatedly without any conditions. What they should have done was repeal the debt ceiling completely.
Now House Republicans want to use it as a weapon of mass destruction to get their way. Since they know that Americans can be scared about debt and deficits, they claim to be concerned about rising deficits, although deficits have been coming down since Trump left office and the pandemic relief measures expired.
In reality, they are more passionate about tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations than they are about reducing deficits. They refuse to consider any package that asks the rich and corporations to pay their part.
They are also more passionate about military spending than they are about curbing “out of control” spending. So they focus on cutting programs for the most vulnerable, even though it is the military budget that has been rising the fastest, and is the biggest source of waste, fraud and abuse in the government.
In the end, their extortion isn’t about debt or deficits but about priorities. They favor tax breaks for the rich and corporations and cuts and punitive measures on any program that provides aid to the vulnerable — Medicaid, student aid, income support, aid for women with dependent children, housing, schools. They demand a complete roll back of Biden’s efforts to address climate change. They would revive billions in tax breaks for oil companies and repeal incentives for renewable energy or elective vehicles. They demand a roll back of Biden’s initiatives to reduce the price of drugs — a gift to the Big Pharma lobby. They even want to roll back funding for the IRS to crack down on tax avoidance and fraud by the wealthy — which would provide billions for deficit reduction.
To add insult to injury, they can’t even agree if they want to negotiate. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has insisted on a negotiated deal before raising the debt ceiling. But the House Freedom Caucus — dozens of members who were key to his election as speaker — demand no negotiations — calling for default unless their entire program is accepted, including measures that they couldn’t even get through the Republican House.
The House zealots are emboldened by Donald Trump who argues they should just default on the debt if they don’t get their way. He clearly figures that if they blow up the economy under Biden, he will benefit politically. Remarkably, the supposed Republican adults in the room — Senate leader Mitch McConnell, former Wall Street mogul Sen. Mitt Romney, presidential wannabes, including Sens. Tim Scott, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz — are AWOL — absent without leave.
President Biden initially said that while he was prepared to negotiate over next year’s budget to increase deficit reduction, he wasn’t going to give into extortion over debt default. Then he foolishly agreed to negotiations, only to see the Republican extremists in the so-called “Freedom Caucus” demand an end to negotiations and capitulation to their full wish list. Inevitably, the more he bends, the more they demand — even though their demands are offensive to the vast majority of Americans.
It is preposterous to empower the zaniest extremists of the House with the power to default on the national debt, tank the stock market, discredit the dollar and drive the economy into a recession or worse unless they get their way.
There is an alternative. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution — passed at the end of the Civil War — provides that the “validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law … shall not be questioned.”
It is time for President Biden to stand up for the good faith and credit of this country. He should invoke the 14th Amendment, denounce the extortion over the debt ceiling as a violation of that constitutional pledge, and instruct the Treasury secretary to pay America’s debts. Republicans will howl and stomp and go to court. So be it. Better that than to enable fools and zealots to hold the country hostage.