Is it mere coincidence that one of the most sensible newspaper columnists working today, Paul Waldman of The Washington Post, almost always expresses opinions I agree with? No, I think not!
Anyway, his column today is so sensible it should be memorized by everybody in Congress and the Biden administration. It deals with the debt ceiling, the idiotic requirement that Congress has to have a new vote whenever the federal government needs to borrow more money to pay for things Congress previously decided to do.
Congress has always acted when called upon to raise the debt limit. Since 1960, Congress has acted 78 separate times to permanently raise, temporarily extend, or revise the definition of the debt limit – 49 times under Republican presidents and 29 times under Democratic presidents [US Treasury].
Congress raised the debt limit three times the last time we had a Republican president (you remember him, the orange one). Now that we have a Democratic president, Republicans are threatening to vote against raising it. That would mean the US government would be unable to make payments it’s legally required to do — for the first time in American history. Nobody knows what would happen then. Almost everybody with a brain thinks it would be a crisis, possibly a disaster, and certainly not something it would be cool to try (unless maybe you think the 2008 financial crisis was worth repeating).
Okay, back to the insightful Paul Waldman:
If you knew nothing about this subject, it might sound like the president is being recalcitrant and Republicans are being sensible. “Let’s sit down together,” says House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “Nobody should be taking the position that we should not negotiate,” says Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.). Even Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) says Democrats “have to negotiate.”
But we’re thinking about “negotiations” all wrong.
The problem begins with the current stance of the two parties. The White House’s position is essentially to maintain the status quo: Congress has appropriated the funds already, and those bills should be paid, which means borrowing the money to cover them. We can argue about how much of the cumulative debt is the responsibility of each party (they’ve both contributed) or how hypocritical Republicans are for pretending to care about debt only when there’s a Democrat in the White House (very). But the administration insists there must be a debt limit increase with no change to current policy.
Republicans, on the other hand, are fantasizing about all the savage cuts they’d like to make to domestic spending, up to and including slashing Social Security and Medicare. So if a negotiation produces a compromise, it would mean more spending cuts than Democrats want but fewer than Republicans seek. Which would still be a victory for the [bad guys].
Instead, Democrats are perfectly free to say the following: With their demand for across-the-board domestic spending reductions, Republicans are in effect proposing cuts to education, health care, economic development, clean energy, infrastructure, enforcement of environmental laws and a great deal more. So here are some of our demands:
- A significant tax increase on the wealthy
- An increase in the minimum wage, including indexing it to inflation
- A national paid family leave program
- A program to extend the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid to the states that have refused to accept it
- Universal pre-K
- A permanent expansion of the child tax credit
That could be just the start. Republicans want to negotiate? Then let’s negotiate! Democrats will be willing to take half a loaf on some of these items; for instance, they might be able to accept only a modest tax increase for the wealthy, or an increase of the minimum wage to only $11 an hour rather than $15. That seems reasonable, doesn’t it?
Think about it this way and it’s clear how odd it is that we’re even calling the GOP demand a negotiation. The choices are (1) give Republicans all of what they want, or (2) give Republicans only some of what they want, with the hope that if the outcome is No. 2, then they’ll be kind enough not to shove the U.S. economy off a cliff.
To be clear, the White House is right that there shouldn’t be any negotiations at all. You don’t negotiate with extortionists, and what Republicans are threatening is economic extortion. It shouldn’t be rewarded.
In fact, the White House ought to go further: The president should announce that in the White House’s view, the debt ceiling violates the 14th Amendment, and because it would be unconstitutional for the United States not to make good on its debts, the Treasury Department will ignore it and continue to pay the government’s bills. If Republicans want to file suit and demand that the Supreme Court allow them to destroy the country’s economy, they’re free to try.
But refraining from destroying the economy shouldn’t be considered a favor Republicans do for Democrats, such that the Democrats have to respond by granting Republicans concessions in return. If they want to have a real negotiation in which both sides get some of what they want, then fine.
That’s the only thing that should be treated as an actual negotiation. Otherwise, Biden should simply take care of the problem in the most expeditious way possible.
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