How the Debt Ceiling Came to Be a Political Cudgel

How the Debt Ceiling Came to Be a Political Cudgel

The Democrats’ latest attempt to draw in the Republicans came Monday, when the Senate took up a bill to continue funding the government — an absolute necessity by Sept. 30 — with a temporary increase in the debt ceiling, along with disaster-relief assistance and funding for refugee resettlement. But since it’s a conventional piece of legislation, the Republicans blocked it with the threat of a filibuster.

That leaves the Democrats with few options but to use the budget reconciliation process to lift the ceiling, adding to the party’s long to-do list in the coming days. It’s time consuming, but absent a colossal mistake by congressional leaders, it will happen, just as Mr. McConnell promised.

If that’s the case, what’s the big deal? Republicans say they’ll use the vote to attack Democrats during the midterms, but it’s hard to imagine making it stick, especially since the vote is about paying existing obligations, not creating new ones with more spending. There’s a good chance that a year from now, no one will be talking about it.

There are, however, two disturbing takeaways from this semiannual dance with default. The first is, obviously, that this is no way to run a country. Some will defend the debt ceiling as a check on spending, but while that was the original goal, it doesn’t work — otherwise, we wouldn’t have to raise it every few years. And there are much, much better ways to check spending than to intentionally career wildly toward the edge of a cliff, only to brake at the last possible second.

But there’s something else about the current debt-limit fight that bodes ill for the future. Much of the scare-quote commentary about the possibility of default assumes that it would come about as a result of a miscalculation. But what if it’s intentional? What if one party comes to believe that forcing a default would sink the other, politically, and decides to prioritize its short-term political fortunes over the country’s long-term economic health?

If that sounds insane, think about how quickly we got used to the Republicans shutting down the federal government for weeks to win some fleeting political concession. The fact that the shutdowns did significant damage to the country, and to the public’s faith in their leaders, hasn’t stopped elected officials from doing it again and again.

And in a world where significant parts of both parties believe that having the other in the majority is tantamount to a communist (or fascist) coup, it’s not hard to imagine one party deciding to sabotage the other by pushing the country into default. After all, during the debt-ceiling fight in 2013 several congressional Republicans said that a default actually wouldn’t be that bad, and would be worth it to stop Mr. Obama’s legislative priorities.

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