Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
At the same time that House Republicans are setting up a committee to investigate the “weaponization” of government, they are weaponizing the government.
While there were votes taken against raising the debt ceiling between the 1980s and 2011, including by Democrats such as then-Senator Joe Biden in 2006, they were symbolic. Elected officials took this stand only after knowing that there were enough votes for passage. Expressing opposition to President George W. Bush’s spending on the war in Iraq was their goal – not grounding the economy to a halt.
The one exception was during the government shutdown of 1995 to 1996. But after coming close to the brink, and with the backlash against Republican extremism, debt ceiling decisions went back to routine.
Under the leadership of Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the GOP is warning President Biden that they will not vote to raise the debt ceiling when the US reaches its $31.4 trillion borrowing limit unless the administration agrees to draconian spending cuts.
Never one to miss a good brawl, former President Donald Trump is urging his party to “play tough” on the issue to use it as leverage.
If the crisis is not resolved and House Republicans don’t vote to raise the debt ceiling, the government won’t be able to borrow the money it needs to pay for spending that Congress has already approved. The US could be forced to default on its debt, ruining the credit rating that has made Treasury bills and notes one of the safest investments in the world. The government might have to delay paying benefits such as social security and salaries for federal workers.
Delivering a stern warning last week, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen stated that, “failure to meet the government’s obligations would cause irreparable harm to the U.S. economy, the livelihoods of all Americans, and global financial stability.”
Fearing that House Republicans are dead serious about deploying this budgetary missile – after all, the party is only a few years away from its concerted effort to overturn a presidential election – the US is expected to hit its ceiling as soon as Thursday, but the real crisis may not come until June. To keep things going, Treasury is investigating options such as shifting funds from one department to the other and temporarily stopping specific forms of federal investments.
The fear running through Washington – and beyond – is that elected officials could prove unable to end the standoff, sending the country into default by this summer, creating global financial chaos and turmoil.
The political battle that is unfolding is a result of Republicans becoming increasingly radicalized in what they are willing to do to achieve partisan power.
The measure at the center of this dangerous game of chicken is not part of the Constitution. The federal debt ceiling was enacted by Congress in 1917 through the Second Liberty Bond Act, shortly before the US entered World War I, with the goal of granting the Department of Treasury increased flexibility in handling federal finances. Before, the department had to wait until Congress authorized more money every time that the government needed it.
For decades, raising the federal debt limit remained a routine matter. Understanding that the government had to pay its bills, even when costs ballooned during times of war, Congress would pass the measure either on a temporary or permanent basis.
To be sure, there were times when Congress came dangerously close to being too late, such as in April 1979 when the vote was not taken until the very last minute, although technical glitches resulted in about $120 million in debt payments being late.
A few months later, the House adopted a rule – named after Rep. Richard Gephardt – which empowered the lower chamber to automatically raise the debt ceiling when they passed a budget resolution, tying the two issues together.
In 1982, the federal debt ceiling was codified into law. The first time that the federal government was forced to take “extraordinary measures” to keep the money flowing was in September of 1985 when Democrats and Republicans could not reach agreement on a budget. Three months later, Congress permanently raised the debt limit to $2.1 billion.
While there were votes taken against raising the debt ceiling between the 1980s and 2011, including by Democrats such as then-Senator Joe Biden in 2006, they were symbolic. Elected officials took this stand only after knowing that there were enough votes for passage. Expressing opposition to President George W. Bush’s spending on the war in Iraq was their goal—not grounding the economy to a halt.
The truce against weaponizing this routine procedure ended in 2011. Tea Party Republicans, a radicalized version of Gingrich-era Republicans, were determined to vote against increasing the debt ceiling unless President Barack Obama agreed to massive spending cuts. The administration realized that the new generation of conservatives was not playing around. In this game of chicken, they resolved not to blink regardless of the fallout.
In May 2011, the Department of Treasury undertook steps to keep paying for its obligations. A few days before funds were set to run out, the administration agreed to pay the ransom. The president signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 that would implement about $920 billion in spending cuts over 10 years and created a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to make recommendations for further cuts.
The ratings agency S&P weren’t happy with how the negotiations had unfolded, downgrading the credit rating of the US. “The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed.”
Since that confrontation, the Department of Treasury has continued to grapple with this issue, including in 2013 and 2014. Frustrated with having to navigate through these treacherous political waters, Obama warned that “the issue here is whether or not America pays its bills. We are not a deadbeat nation. And so there’s a very simple solution to this: Congress authorizes us to pay our bills.”
Now, President Biden might face his biggest challenge yet. The new Trumpian Republicans are determined to win their faceoff with the administration. Based on reports of how McCarthy won the speakership, the Californian was willing to make concessions to the most radical members about moving forward with this strategy and following it through until the end, if necessary.
What makes this situation so tragic is that there is no reason for this crisis to happen. While vigorous debates about government spending are certainly a legitimate part of politics, forcing a situation that could create economic chaos after Congress has already reached deals over expenditures should not be a legitimate and normal part of politics.
More than almost any other act, this embodies the willingness of the modern GOP to use virtually any procedure of democracy—from Supreme Court appointments to the budget to the Electoral College—as a partisan weapon. House Republicans seem to be making the bet that doing what is necessary to force spending reductions is worth the risk of the financial fallout.
At some level, they must believe that should the crisis not be resolved, voters will blame the president and not them. But in the end the people who would suffer would be voters, living in states red and blue, who would face the consequences.
If Speaker McCarthy wants to show that he is a serious political leader, he should form a coalition with the handful of moderate Republicans and Democrats to quickly enact an increase in the debt ceiling this measure regardless of what risk that might pose to his own future.
All of this is more reason for Congress to consider serious long-term reform. If one of the two major parties is willing to normalize the weaponization of this process, it’s time to change the way that it works, to take away the weapon being used in partisan warfare.