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October 6, 2021Heather Cox Richardson
Today, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) backed down from his obstructionism, agreeing to let the Democrats raise the debt ceiling by a simple majority rather than by the 60 votes they needed when the Republicans kept filibustering their bills. A quick recap: the issue at stake was whether the United States would default on its debts, which it has never done before. The threat to default was purely a political ploy on the part of the Republicans to try to force the Democrats to abandon their very popular infrastructure measure. Here’s the backstory: Congress actually originally intended the debt ceiling to enable the government to be flexible in its borrowing. In the era of World War I, when it needed to raise a lot of money fast, Congress stopped passing specific revenue measures and instead set a cap on how much money the government could borrow through all of the different instruments it used. Now, though, the debt ceiling has become a political cudgel because if it is not raised when Congress spends more than it has the ability to repay, the country will default on its debts. The cap has been raised repeatedly since it was first imposed; indeed, the Republicans raised it three times under former president Donald Trump. Once again, it is too low, and by October 18, the Treasury will be unable to pay our debts. To meet the nation’s obligations, Congress needs either to raise taxes, which Republicans passionately oppose, or to raise the debt ceiling so the Treasury can borrow more money. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has voted to raise or suspend the debt ceiling 32 times in his career, including the three times under Trump, refused to allow Republicans to vote to raise the debt ceiling. Although the ceiling needed to be lifted because Trump added $7.8 trillion to the debt (which now stands at about $28 trillion), in part with the huge 2017 tax cuts that went overwhelmingly to the wealthy, McConnell tried to tie the need for more money to the Democrats’ infrastructure plan. This was false: the debt ceiling is not an appropriation; it simply permits the government to borrow money it needs to pay debts already incurred. But McConnell and the Republicans want to dismantle an active government, not to build it. They hope to convince Americans that Democrats are racking up huge debts—even though it is the Republicans on the hook for today’s crisis—and that they should not be permitted to pass a bill that supports children and working parents and addresses climate change. The Democrats insisted that the Republicans should join them in raising the ceiling, since they had been instrumental in making it necessary, but McConnell and his caucus refused. Finally, with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warning that defaulting would crash the economy and with financial services firm Moody’s Analytics warning that a default would cost up to 6 million jobs, create an unemployment rate of nearly 9%, and wipe out $15 trillion in household wealth, the Democrats tried to pass a measure themselves. Republicans wouldn’t let them. They filibustered it, trying to force the Democrats to save the country by raising the debt ceiling through a bill that can’t be filibustered, a process called reconciliation, which would make it harder for them to use reconciliation for their own infrastructure bill since Congress can pass only one of that type of reconciliation bill per year.It was a remarkably cynical ploy, risking the financial health of the country and our standing in the world to make sure that a Republican minority could continue to hamstring what the Democratic majority considers a priority. Republicans have played chicken with government shutdowns since the 1980s, refusing to pass measures to fund the daily operations of the government and thereby stopping paychecks and government operations. But defaulting on our obligations was a whole new game of brinksmanship. The greatest international asset the U.S. has right now is its financial system. To bring that to its knees to score political points would be interpreted, correctly, as a sign our country is so unstable it must be sidelined. Midday today, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin highlighted this international doubt when he took the unusual step of weighing in on politics. He warned that a default would “undermine the economic strength on which our national security rests.” Paychecks for 1.4 million active duty military personnel and veterans’ benefits for 2.4 million veterans, as well as payments on military contracts, would stop. Equally dangerous, defaulting on loans would devastate the nation’s international reputation “as a reliable and trustworthy economic and national security partner. Democrats said they could not guarantee the country would not default, and they were clearly starting to consider getting rid of the filibuster, at least for this particular issue, to enable them to pass a debt ceiling bill by a simple majority rather than by 60 votes. Then McConnell blinked (although he didn’t cave). In a scorching statement that laid all the blame for the crisis on the Democrats, he offered to “allow” Democrats to use normal procedures—that is, the Republicans won’t filibuster them!—to extend the ceiling into December. Democrats indicate they will take that deal. There is one major takeaway from this manufactured crisis: McConnell was willing to come right to the verge of burning the nation down to get his way. In the end, he stopped just before the sparks became an inferno, but it was much too close for comfort. Still, he stopped. Trump and his supporters did not. The former president has been pushing Republicans to use the threat of default to get what they want, and he was not happy that McConnell had backed down. He issued a statement blaming McConnell for “folding” and added “He’s got all of the cards with the debt ceiling, it’s time to play the hand.” Trump’s willingness to burn down the country is ramping up as the January 6 investigation gets closer to him. Tomorrow is the deadline for four of his aides to respond to subpoenas for documents and testimony from the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol: former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino, adviser Steve Bannon, and Defense Department aide Kash Patel. Meadows worked to overturn the 2020 election results and was in the thick of things on January 6, Scavino had met with Trump to plot to get congresspeople not to count the certified votes on January 6, Bannon strategized with other officials on January 5 to stop the count, and Patel was part of discussions about the strength of the Capitol Police.The four are expected to defy the subpoenas at Trump’s insistence, a defiance that suggests they think he and his people are going to regain power. According to Glenn Kirschner, a former U.S. Army prosecutor, contempt of Congress earns a year of prison time; obstruction of Congress, five years; and obstruction of justice, 20 years.The rest of the former president’s statements today were unhinged attacks on the committee.A final note for October 6: U.S. District Judge Robert L. Pitman has temporarily blocked enforcement of Texas’s S.B. 8, the so-called “heartbeat” bill prohibiting abortions after six weeks, when most women don’t know they’re pregnant. The Justice Department had sued to stop enforcement of the law. Pitman stopped it on the grounds that it deprived “citizens of a significant and well-established constitutional right.”—

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