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There's Opportunity in the Debt-Ceiling Vote for the Democrats Too

January 13, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

With the giant Defense budget, the tax-cut extensions, the bailouts, and the lack of tax reciepts from the economic crisis, the ceiling on our national debt is going to have to be increased, by the end of March according to Tim Geithner, if we are to avoid defaulting on our debt and destroying whatever modicum of creditworthiness we have left in the international community.

Voting to raise the debt ceiling is always unpopular, and its must-pass nature makes it a perfect tool for the minority party to force the majority to register an unpopular vote. Rep. Michael Simpson [R, ID-2] admitted as much last year, arguing that taking the unpopular debt-ceiling vote was not his party’s responsibility. “That is the burden of the majority,” he said.

He’s absolutely right. The minority party, whether they be Democrats or Republicans, always takes advantage of the luxury of voting “no” on debt-ceiling increases. For example, during the 2000’s, the Republican congressional majority under President Bush voted en masse to raise the debt ceiling 7 times, bringing it from $6.4 trillion in 2002 to $11.3 trillion in 2008. But as soon as President Obama took office, the Republicans backed away from raising the debt ceiling and forced the Democrats to take the unpopular votes. See my table here outlining the last 11 debt-ceiling votes for more detailed info.

But who is “the majority” now, and whose burden is this debt-ceiling vote? This is the first time since 1987 that we’ve had a divided Congress, so it’s unclear where the burden lies. Is it the Republicans, who solidly control the majoritarian House of Representatives, or is it the Democrats, who have a slim Senate majority and veto power in the White House? Obviously, this is about perception and messaging, but I’d say it’s still an open question. 

We know what the Republicans want — cuts to spending on social programs and free reign to cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy without having to offset their impact on the deficit. They were out early with their position on the debt ceiling vote, with Boehner saying on the day Geithner sent him a letter notifying him of the need to raise the limit that “the American people will not stand for such an increase unless it is accompanied by meaningful action by the President and Congress to cut spending and end the job-killing spending binge in Washington.”

But what do the Democrats want? With a divided Congress, there is no reason the Republicans get to play this one harder than the Democrats. The fact is, the Republicans are not going to allow the U.S. to surpass the debt limit any more than the Democrats are going to. Just yesterday, for example, the president of the Chamber of Commerce dismissed the “political carrying-on” around the debt ceiling vote and said, unequivocally, that Congress has to get it done. “We absolutely support the expansion of the debt,” he said. “We’ve got to do the debt ceiling.” Remember, the Chamber is influential enough with congressional Republicans that they got them to block the 9/11 health care bill for first responders because the Chambers’ member businesses opposed the pay-for that would have closed tax loopholes for multinationals doing business in the U.S. The Republican Budget Committee Chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan [R, WI-1], pretty much admitted as well recently that the Republicans are not going to allow a default on the debt.

So the debt-ceiling vote is probably the Democrats’ best shot at getting any of their legislative priorities through the Republican House. It’s an opportunity for a Defense-cut-heavy budget-balancing program, an extension of unemployment insurance benefits for the million of unemployed workers who have exhausted all their benefits, or tax cuts targeted at the middle-class. So far, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of thinking along these lines, but for folks like the long-term unemployed who are looking for a way to get something through the gridlocked Congress, this is an opportunity that is going to come and go fast.

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