Keith Hennessey’s Debt Limit Strategy

by Reihan Salam

Recognizing that members of Congress find it politically painful to vote for debt limit increases, Keith Hennessey proposes a smart strategy. Because Republicans are in the majority in the House, the expectation is that they will vote for a debt limit increase while at least some members of the minority party will be free to cast symbolic votes against doing so. Some members of the majority party will do the same if they sense that it won’t jeopardize ultimate passage of a debt limit increase. Barack Obama, for example, voted against a debt limit increase in 2006 as a means of expressing his displeasure with the Bush administration and his commitment to fiscal restraint, and this vote hasn’t proved much of a liability in the years since. 

So Hennessey proposes taking advantage of this dynamic by having House Republicans commit to providing 50 votes for a “clean” debt limit increase, i.e., a debt limit increase that is not tied to spending cuts or revenue increases, etc. The catch is that this increase would be a short-term increase and that House Democrats would have to deliver the 168 additional votes required for passage. Hennessey presents his proposal in the form of a hypothetical statement by Speaker Boehner:

We Republicans see ourselves as representing the government’s creditors, the taxpayers who finance government spending. We will make sure the government does not default.  But we’re not going to provide the votes for a long-term credit extension without reforms and regular checkpoints. If the President wants more borrowing without taking responsible action to cut spending, his party will have to deliver most of the votes in the House for such a bill, and they can explain to their constituents why they think we should keep borrowing without solving the underlying fiscal problem. And they can do this every three months for the foreseeable future.

As Hennessey acknowledges in a classic understatement, “this strategy requires significant tactical and message coordination among House Republicans, possibly more than they are currently able to execute.” But it is easy to see how this strategy might improve the terms of the debate for congressional Republicans.  

I have to wonder, though: which congressional Republicans will serve as part of the 50-vote rump that is essential to making the plan work? They’ll presumably have to come from members who represent safe districts yet who are not vulnerable to a primary challenger, and who on top of that don’t have strong ideological objections to voting for a (short-term) debt limit increase. Hennessey’s strategy, which I like a lot, is further evidence that we need stronger political parties that can check self-serving behavior on the part of individual members.