April 27, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
With their debt ceiling bill, the House Republicans reveal they have no reason to be serious about playing a dangerous game
This is not some sort of Svengalian victory for Kevin McCarthy.
The first thing to understand about the legislation passed Wednesday by the House Republicans, which lifts the debt ceiling for a year, is that it’s not serious. The second thing to understand is that we know it’s not, by reading about it.
We don’t need special “insider” access. (No, this is not some sort of Svengalian victory for the Republican Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy.) Anyone can understand this by their ability to read.
According to the Post, the bill raises the cap but repeals Joe Biden’s “recent accomplishments, including a bevy of tax credits meant to spur the adoption of electric vehicles and other clean technologies.”
The House Republicans aim to “end the president’s plan to waive up to $10,000 from millions of borrowers’ student debts. It limits the power of federal agencies to issue regulations on a wide array of industries. And it imposes a raft of new rules on low-income families that receive federal benefits, including food stamps and Medicaid, requiring them to work longer hours in exchange for help — or risk losing aid entirely.”
These are just a sampling. There’s more.
Until now, the focus has been on the House Republicans’ willingness to play chicken with the fate of the world. If the US were to default on its debt, we’d see tens of trillions of dollars in personal wealth go pffth.
The possibility of apocalypse has seized our attention since that moment in January when the GOP (just barely) took control of the House of Representatives. But now that they’ve produced a document, rather than just talking about one, it’s clear we never had to go that far.
Think about it this way.
Even if you hate pretty much everything about this president, you can’t reasonably expect him to say, in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, “Dude! I’ll totally trash all of my era-defining achievements on which I’m going to base my 2024 reelection campaign. Yuh, bruh! Yuh!”
It’s one thing to hate pretty much everything about this president.
It’s another to think he’s an idiot.
In a rational political system, this is where things would end.
They won’t, because there’s a push underway that will result in the House GOP seeming more serious than it is. Some of that push involves bad-faith actors making Joe Biden responsible for the House GOP’s choices. Some of it involves good-faith efforts by the press and pundit corps to contextualize the debate over debts and deficits. Because that debate is serious, the impression left will be of a serious House GOP.
But asking Biden to throw away his accomplishments isn’t the only sign of unseriousness. Consider the House Republicans’ bargaining position.
To get what they want, they must persuade the other side to say yes. Normally, when one side needs a yes, it offers something to say yes to. I’m not sure what that might be in this case, but it’s definitely not asking a president to shitcan two years of era-defining achievement.
When you do not offer something to say yes to, you have given the other side a road to no. If you have given them a road to no, you don’t know what “bargaining” means. If you don’t know what “bargaining” means, you have no business at the bargaining table. You’re unserious.
To be sure, the president wants the House Republicans to lift the debt ceiling, but that’s not the same as offering him something to say yes to.
Hanging over the bargaining table are the consequences of failing to agree. The president has said yes, unconditionally, to raising the debt ceiling. He’s waiting for the House Republicans to come around. Meanwhile, they’ve larded a counteroffer with conditions – in effect, with poison pills. There’s nowhere else for the consequences to fall.
The Republicans have no leverage.
All they can do is pretend otherwise.
And betray their unseriousness – again.
None of this is to say that the Republicans are not playing a dangerous game. They are playing a dangerous game. But as Noah Berlatsky has repeatedly pointed out, they don’t have the incentive to be serious.
Structural advantages, Noah has said, mean they have “less and less accountability to voters, which means they have trouble gauging what’s popular and what’s not popular, even with their own constituents.”
They don’t have a reason to offer something to say yes to.
But they do have a reason to offer something to say no to.
We should pay attention to this feature of our politics – the perverse incentives that are created by a political system that gives an advantage to the most unserious people among us as well as a disadvantage to the most serious people among us. The patients are running the asylum.
We, too, are pretending otherwise.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.