Early Returns

A No-Drama Way to Deal With the Debt Limit

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

Neither party should mess with the debt limit, which now has to be raised in March or else the government might default. It was wrong of Republicans to use the debt limit as ransom during Barack Obama's presidency; it would be wrong of Democrats to do it now.

Mostly.

Here's the problem: There are quite a few House Republicans who simply will not vote for raising the debt limit. That's fine when their party is in the minority; it's not unreasonable to force the majority to provide the votes for what is thought to be an unpopular measure.

It's not so fine when their party is in the majority. 

With appropriations, it's a bit different. When radical conservatives refuse to vote for spending bills, that has the effect of giving Democrats leverage; Republicans need their votes, so Democrats can make policy demands. Fair enough. With the debt limit, however, it's irresponsible to insist on policy concessions in return for the responsible vote. 

But it's hardly reasonable to expect Democrats to always vote for the debt limit (and be attacked for it in campaign ads), especially since Republicans happen to be the party of high federal budget deficits. 

The obvious solution -- and I'm not the first to say this -- is for Democrats to only make one demand: Eliminate the debt limit. It's good policy, it's a responsible "ask" in return for their votes, it's even been endorsed by President Donald Trump -- and if Republican radicals don't like it, they're free to retain the debt limit by, well, voting for it. 

I should clarify a bit: While using the threat of default to blackmail everyone into granting their demands was a new and irresponsible tactic used by Republicans during the Obama administration, the idea that congressional leadership should add some sweeteners to debt-limit increases isn't new. In other words, while it's bad news for members of Congress to demand, say, disaster relief or they won't support a needed debt-limit increase, it's perfectly fine to ask that disaster relief, which was going to pass anyway, be added to the debt-limit bill so that they have an excuse for supporting it. (Assuming, that is, that Republicans don't add disaster relief to the bill keeping government funded beyond Feb. 8.)

Republicans -- you remember, the party with majorities and control of what gets voted on in both chambers of Congress -- shouldn't save this until the last moment. Over the next week, the urgent task is progress on government spending bills and, if possible, a deal on immigration. After that, however, they should move straight to the debt limit. They're going to have to raise it sooner or later, so might as well get it over with as soon as possible, with as little drama as they can manage. 

1. Elizabeth Saunders at the Monkey Cage on Trump and North Korea policy.

2. Matthew Dickinson on Trump's State of the Union speech. A much more generous reading than mine. I agree with Dickinson that policy details aren't necessary in these addresses, but at least an indication that there is some policy would be helpful. 

3. Vox's Jen Kirby interviews Anne Joseph O'Connell about the Federal Vacancies Act. You probably want to know this stuff. 

4. Very nice job by my Bloomberg View colleague Ramesh Ponnuru on what really wasn't "presidential" at all about the State of the Union speech. 

5. And Jonathan Chait reminds everyone about the unusually high levels of ordinary corruption in the Trump administration. 

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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