Jonathan Bernstein

The debt limit needs to be raised in the next few months, and Adam Jentleson, a former staffer for Sen. Harry Reid, has a suggestion for Democrats: They should force Republicans to find votes themselves to raise the limit, “or make concessions – like no more kids in cages.”

Republicans have 53 votes, he adds. It would be “perfectly responsible” for Democrats to say that they won’t filibuster an increase but also won’t help Republicans find a majority for one.

Lots of liberals have pilloried Republicans over the years for demanding spending cuts in exchange for increasing the debt limit. It amounts, they say, to holding the nation’s credit rating hostage. Would this be equally irresponsible?

No. The key is that Jentleson’s proposal would give Republicans an easy way out: As long as they vote for a clean debt-limit increase, it would pass. He specifically rejects the option of filibustering an increase, nor does he suggest House Democrats should pass a measure combining debt-limit legislation with other priorities and then insist that the Senate and the president go along with it. Either of those routes would indeed be irresponsible blackmail.

Instead, he’d simply give Republicans a choice: Act responsibly or pay a price.

Granted, the debt limit is unnecessary and foolish and Congress should simply eliminate it. Total federal borrowing is a consequence of previous policy decisions; incurring obligations and then inserting a veto at the stage where the government is supposed to pay for them makes no sense. If Congress doesn’t want to borrow, it should raise taxes or cut spending or both. No business or citizen would organize things this way.

So opposing a bill that increases the debt limit is wrong on the merits. Raising the ceiling doesn’t increase federal deficits, it just allows the government to pay what it already owes. And if the limit is breached, the U.S. would be forced into default, at an unknown but probably severe cost to the economy. Nevertheless, members of Congress have always treated such bills as a tough vote, and parties in the minority usually force the majority to take it. In periods of unified government, the majority might add things they like to such a bill to make the vote less painful.

And that’s essentially what Jentleson is saying: If Senate Republicans aren’t going to act like the majority, then it’s totally reasonable for Democrats to do so and reap the normal rewards for it.

I suspect, in the event, that this strategy won’t work. I can imagine several options for Republicans to fight back against it (some of which might themselves be irresponsible). But, yes: I see no particular reason that the Democrats shouldn’t try this idea.

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Contact Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.


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