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Noah Kaplan is a clinical assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.
Democrats need to recognize that Sen. Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans are not bluffing: They will not vote to raise the debt ceiling. Republicans believe that a failure to raise the debt ceiling will hurt the Democrats electorally more than themselves — and Republicans are right.
No one is certain of the economic consequences of the U.S. failing to raise the debt ceiling and defaulting on its promises — it’s never happened.
The Congressional Budget Office notes that if the debt ceiling is not raised the government would have to delay making payments (think of retirees not getting Social Security checks and military personnel not receiving wages), default on its debt service payments, or both. The former would cause untold hardship and suffering for millions of people. The nation’s debt rating would be lowered — costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade. A recession beginning this year would be a substantive likelihood.
Who would be blamed for such an economic calamity? Voters always penalize the party in power for economic downturns. Social scientists refer to this as retrospective economic voting: punishing the incumbent party for the nation’s poor economic performance. In the U.S., this means that the party of the president suffers for economic downturns. Most recently, the economic recessions of 2008 and 2020 cost Republicans many votes — and probably control of Congress and the presidency.
And voters would be correct to blame the Democrats since the Democrats can raise the debt ceiling unilaterally. Democrats can use the budget reconciliation procedure to raise the debt ceiling (although the procedure cannot be used to suspend the debt ceiling). A budget reconciliation bill is not subject to the Senate filibuster and can be passed with a simple majority vote in both congressional chambers. Budget reconciliation bills were used in 1986, 1990, 1993 and 1997 to raise the debt ceiling. They can be used again. Democrats can raise the debt ceiling without any Republican votes.
Democrats are in a no-win situation from an electoral perspective. They do not want to be tagged as fiscally profligate. But crying foul and trying to blame the Republicans will not help. Democrats will lose a few votes if they raise the debt ceiling (although the good news for the Democrats is that voters have a short memory, particularly for procedural issues, and raising the debt ceiling now is unlikely to hurt Democrats in the 2024 election). But they will lose many more votes in 2022 and 2024 if they do not prevent the US from defaulting (or delaying payment) on its promises.
How can the Democrats make the best of a bad situation? By using a budget reconciliation bill to raise the debt limit to $60 trillion. The U.S.’s current debt is nearly $30 trillion. Doubling the debt ceiling would ensure that the debt ceiling limit would not threaten the nation’s ability to fulfill its financial obligations for the foreseeable future. And everyone agrees — even McConnell has said that “America must never default.”
Democrats can confidently claim that doubling the debt ceiling ensures that neither party could play politics with the issue again. Of course, the Democrats have to remind voters that raising the debt ceiling does not raise the debt — raising the debt ceiling is about ensuring that the U.S. makes good on past promises. Furthermore, the Democrats should remind voters that the nation’s deficits in the postwar period have increased far more during Republican administrations than Democratic administrations.
America cannot afford to break its fiscal promises. Paying America’s bills should not be a partisan issue or subject to partisan games. Democrats can do the nation a huge favor by doubling the debt ceiling using the budget reconciliation act. Doing so would prevent an economic catastrophe for the nation and turn the Republicans’ self-interested short-term electoral gambit into a long-term win for the nation.