The debt ceiling is as good a place to start as any. Congress decided the nation had to have a debt ceiling—a limit on how much debt the Treasury can borrow on behalf of the public—back in 1917 as a way for the Congress to take on public debt to finance government operations and obligations. It was a way to provide blanket authorization for spending so it wouldn’t have to authorize specific loans or give the Treasury permission to issue debt instruments—bonds—for every single spending need, including loan obligations to other nations. What was intended to be a means of making government and Congress more efficient of course became a periodic weapon. Under McConnell, it has become a hostage.
In 2019, everyone—even Republicans—rightly thought it would be a good idea to not let the former guy in the White House have that weapon, so they suspended the debt ceiling. They said, basically, whatever Treasury has to do for the next two years is fine with us, we don’t need to set that limit. Republicans being Republicans and Democrats letting them get away with it, they decided the thing to do was put that weapon in storage until the middle of the next president’s first, critical year in office. Just a little time bomb for what might be a Democratic president next time around—which went off very quietly over the weekend on July 31 when the suspension expired.
The Treasury has enough cash on hand until sometime in October, possibly November to avoid defaulting on its—the nation’s—obligations. This includes things like Social Security, veterans’ pensions, and Medicare as well as foreign debt, expenditures that have already been approved, and commitments already made. The country has never defaulted on its debt because to do so would be pretty disastrous to our economy, and what’s disastrous for us is disastrous for the world markets. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen informed Congress, i.e., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, last Friday that the Department would start taking “extraordinary measures” to stave off hitting the statutory limit that’s now back in effect.
Now to the Senate. On Wednesday, Senate Democrats decided to play hardball with McConnell—or, depending on your perspective, gave him a hostage. They will not include language to raise or suspend the debt ceiling in the $3.5 budget resolution they will be offering as the companion bill to the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill they’re considering now. There are a couple of practical reasons not to put it in the resolution, which can pass with just Democratic votes. One is timing—getting that big reconciliation bill done and squared with the House could take longer than they actually have before Yellen runs out of debt limit string. The other is that to include it in a reconciliation bill, they technically have to put a number on it by the established rules of the process.
They could decide to ignore the rules and include a simple suspension of the debt ceiling, but that would probably require having to overrule the parliamentarian, and they have other critical issues on that front.
So instead of including it in that bill, Senate Democrats have decided they’ll include it in a short-term government funding bill, a continuing resolution, that they’re also going to have to pass by Sept. 31 when the fiscal year ends … which would require Republican support to pass, so it would be a dare to them to filibuster it. Or it could force Democrat Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to decide between defaulting on the nation’s debt and shutting down the government, or abolishing the filibuster.
Government funding/continuing resolution
This brings us to government funding and the annual fall game of kicking the can down the road to the next major recess point/holiday when maximum pressure is on everyone to get the job done so they can go home.
While the Senate has been consumed with neverending bipartisan negotiations on infrastructure (and to be fair, getting some groundbreaking work done on judges), the House has been plowing away on appropriations for the new fiscal year, starting Oct. 1. They’ve passed nine of 12 annual appropriations bills, which at least gives a start to the annual autumnal process of pain that is funding the government.
The Senate hasn’t passed any yet and Republicans are going to make it as big a fight as ever. They’ll start with reinstating the anti-abortion Hyde amendment (and once again, three cheers for the House for excluding it for the first time in 45 years) and trying to increase defense spending. They’ll also want to have a Trump border wall fight and will throw any number of other hissy fits, particularly as the Democrats are pushing a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill that for once gives the 99% something to cheer.
“But the deficit!” they’ll cry. Never mind the Iraq War, which never had to be paid for and has cost the nation nearly $2 trillion. Or the tax cuts in the GOP Tax Scam of 2017 that could cost $2.3 trillion over the next 10 years if they’re not repealed or allowed to expire. That passed, by the way, in a reconciliation bill with only Republican votes.
That brings us back to the budget resolution and reconciliation bill Democrats will be using to pass the $3.5 trillion worth of great and critical stuff from Biden’s economic plans. First the Democrats will pass their budget resolution, subject to a simple majority vote in the Senate. The budget resolution will provide the instructions for reconciliation, which tells the appropriate committees how much they’re going to change spending, revenues, deficits, (or the debt limit, see above) by specific amounts to establish and pay for the programs in the bill.
It is subject to special rules, primarily one that says only policies that change spending or revenue can be included. That’s where the parliamentarian in the Senate comes in. She advises the body on whether or not the things they’ve included in the bill actually do that. Note that she just advises the Senate on that—she doesn’t get final say. She can be overruled, but that also takes 51 votes. (In the case of the 50/50 Senate that now exists, Vice President Kamala Harris gets a tie-breaking vote, but she only get to vote to break ties.)
Back to now and the issue of the debt ceiling. McConnell, not at all surprisingly, announced his intention to take it hostage Thursday, and he used the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill to justify it. “If our colleagues want to ram through yet another reckless tax and spending spree without our input, if they want all this spending and debt to be their signature legacy, they should leap at the chance to own every bit of it,” he blustered in a floor statement.
“So let me make something perfectly clear: if they don’t need or want our input, they won’t get our help with the debt limit increase that these reckless plans will require,” McConnell said. “I could not be more clear. They have the ability to control the White House, to control the House, to control the Senate. They can raise the debt ceiling.” As Politico said, he “notably” didn’t mention whether the Republicans would cooperate with a debt ceiling suspension, but at this point that’s a distinction without much importance.
Republicans are threatening they won’t allow a debt ceiling hike in a regular order bill unless they get “structural” and “institutional” reforms—meaning, as always, cutting Social Security or Medicare.
Democrats are taking as hard a line, knowing that the nation has never defaulted on its debts and Republicans don’t want to be responsible for making it happen for the first time. “When you incur bills, you pay the bills,” said Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. “And now we’ve got all these ideas like: ‘Well, we really have to deal with Medicare and Social Security on this.’ That’s stall-ball,” Wyden said. “I went to school on a basketball scholarship, and I know what stall-ball is.”
This is the next several weeks and months of life with the Senate McConnell constructed. It’s not even counting the other must-pass stuff on Democrats’ plates, starting with the For the People Act and John Lewis Voting Right Advancement Act that are essential to our democracy even continuing. When we can’t have nice things, it’s pretty much his fault.
And yes, ending the filibuster could save a helluva lot of frustration, angst, and time.