Republicans Ineffective in Debt Ceiling Dispute

Year after year, the American government spends billions of dollars on healthcare, social security benefits, and bolstering the military, among other initiatives. Every year, the sticker price of operation for this plethora of government initiatives is larger than the amount of money the government can collect in taxes. Tax revenue is the primary way for the government to make money, but when this does not suffice, it issues treasury bonds, borrowing money from financers around the world and promises to repay this amount with interest. The amount owed is what makes up the national debt. 

Congress is an incredibly important body when considering the national debt, as it decides how much money the government needs to spend on programs and how much should be borrowed to finance them. In 1979, former U.S. Representative Dick Gephardt, a Democrat from Missouri, created the “Gephardt Rule,” a parliamentary procedure that raised the debt ceiling every time a budget was passed. He tells The Atlantic what he said to other members of Congress when asking them to raise the debt ceiling. 

“‘Did you vote for the appropriations bill? The defense bill? The highway bill?’ They’d all say yes. And I’d say, ‘Well, then you gotta pay the bill. If you didn’t mean it, don’t vote for it. Then you won’t have to pay for it.’”

Congressional spending falls under two categories: mandatory spending and discretionary spending. Mandatory spending consists of programs that the government has already committed to, such as Medicare and social security. In these cases, the government has promised the American people money in some form, so payment is automatically allocated to these programs without debate. Discretionary spending is made up of expenses that Congress continually decides on, such as military spending. Every time a budget is passed, members of Congress debate how much money should be allocated to the military. 63 percent of the budget is mandatory spending, or programs that Congress cannot cut. When the government borrows money to finance Congressional programs, the majority of them are non-negotiable. 

Republicans see themselves as the fiscally responsible party, the people keeping rampant spending from Democrats in check. In 1995, when the Republicans took the House, they suspended the Gephardt Rule. Republicans could vote for discretionary spending programs but withhold the vote to increase the debt ceiling as a way to appear fiscally conservative to their voters. The debt ceiling quickly became a partisan issue. 

If the debt ceiling is not increased, the government will have to default on the national debt. This has never happened before, although it came close in 2011. In the case of a default, the United States’ credit rating would be degraded, undermining global confidence in the dollar. Government employees would go unpaid and social security benefits would be placed on hold. The stock market would take a dive, and experts are certain that the American economy would fall into a recession. If nothing is done, the United States will default on its debt by this summer. 

To pass an increase of the debt ceiling in the Senate, Democrats will need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. While Democrats may be able to muster a simple majority of 51 votes, 60 requires a plan that Senate Republicans can get on board with. President Biden wants a “clean” debt ceiling increase, or one free of conditions, but Republicans want provisions that cut government spending tied to the package. Recently, Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy unveiled a plan to increase the national debt for one year with a host of conditions. This included cutting spending to be in line with 2022 levels, removing tax credits for electric vehicles, and blocking Biden’s plan to cancel student debt, among other measures. His plan increases the work requirements on those receiving food stamps and Medicaid, placing an unfair burden on struggling Americans. McCarthy’s plan reads more like a Republican wish list than a bill that Congress would pass, and it would be dead on arrival in the Democratic Senate. Under McCarthy’s weak leadership, it is unclear whether it has enough support from his own party to pass the House. Disunity among the Republicans ensures that any plan McCarthy makes with the Democrats would fail in the current House, as he has little control over the right wing of the party that prolonged his election as Speaker of the House. Meanwhile, analysts from Goldman Sachs estimate that the country could default on its debt as early as mid-June. 

Speaker McCarthy knows how catastrophic a default on the national debt would be for the country. The current standoff between the two parties is unsustainable. He must find a way to exert some control over House Republicans and unite his party, as it currently has no interest in keeping the country functional. Speaker McCarthy released a plan that prioritized the Republican party over the American economy. President Biden has indicated a staunch unwillingness to consider the plan. McCarthy needs to find a way to make his party actually govern the country and sit down to craft a bill that helps more than Republican reelection campaigns.