During the first debt limit stand-off, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell designed a scheme that would end the then-crisis and preclude another one. Instead of waiting on congressional authorization to lift the debt ceiling, McConnell’s proposal would allow the president to do it himself. Congress could block the extension, but only with a two-thirds vote.
It’s a good idea. As former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson told CNBC, the whole idea of a “debt limit” is redundant. “Congress has already approved the spending,” he explained, “And then say ‘you have to then come back and agree to allow us to meet our obligations,’ that’s ridiculous.” When Congress authorizes spending, it gives an implicit OK to the president—“If you need to borrow to fulfill your obligations to the laws we passed, then do so.” McConnell’s idea would make that explicit.
Indeed, it’s such a good idea that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has brought it back, to pressure John Boehner and House Republicans into ending the stand-off. As Brian Beutler writes for Salon, “Moving quickly, while Boehner and his lieutenants dither, is a can’t-lose move for Reid. If the plan fails—that is, if Republicans successfully filibuster the bill with a week before the Treasury Department’s deadline—markets will turn, and the pressure on the GOP to cave will increase. If it passes, Boehner will be isolated.”
But there remains a major obstacle to GOP concessions: The growing number of Republicans who believe that we can survive a debt limit breach with little trouble.
In addition to the lawmakers I noted this morning (and the ten highlighted by my colleague Patricia Murphy) there’s Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson—who argues that the administration can prioritize payments to creditors, “if the spending was properly prioritized, there’s no reason whatsoever to default on any of the debt”—and Iowa Republican Steve King, who makes a similar case, “Default would be if you couldn’t pay the interest and couldn’t manage the principle on our national debt. And that’s not going to happen. The resources are there. The cash flow is easily there to pay the interest on our debt.”
Not only do these lawmakers have a fundamental misunderstanding of what the debt limit is, but they vastly overestimate the technical ability of the Treasury to shift to prioritization. Unfortunately, they have no real incentive to understand anything.
According to the most recent survey from the Pew Research Center, 54 percent of Republicans believe that we can go past the debt limit deadline “without major problems.”
I repeat: For more than half of self-identified Republicans, breaching the debt limit is no big deal. Among Tea Party Republicans, that number grows to 64 percent.
This entire time, John Boehner has been trying to hold the line without angering conservatives. But when an entire segment of the GOP base resides in a separate reality, I’m not sure that’s possible. At this point, there’s almost nothing Boehner could do—short of causing default—that would preclude Tea Party anger.
In which case, he should do the right thing, end the shutdown, lift the debt limit, and save the United States from the berserker rage of a revanchist minority.