Debt-Ceiling Surrender

by Andrew C. McCarthy
Republicans use Senate rules to play a con game on the folks back home.

‘It’s a sad day in the history of the Senate,” Mitch McConnell bitterly announced. The minority leader wanted Americans to know, or at least to believe, that Republicans were outraged by what he called the Democratic majority’s “power grab” — detonation of the so-called nuclear option, exploding the minority’s ability to block presidential nominees.

In truth, the GOP had not done much of anything to oppose Obama picks. Eric Holder, to take just one example, was confirmed by a whopping 75–21 margin — with 19 Republican yeas — despite the Mark Rich scandal, the FALN terrorist pardons, and a history of misleading Congress. The GOP similarly rolled over for one after another of the radical lefties now serving as ministers of Obama’s imperial presidency on the bench and throughout the bureaucracy.

Indeed, in positing their case to preserve the filibuster, Republicans argued that they had approved fully 99 percent of the president’s judicial nominees. How telling that they should see this as a point in their favor. The filibuster was crucial, they inveighed, because it acts as a brake against radical transformation by a slim but zealous majority. Its 60-vote supermajority hurdle enables the minority to force the majority to act responsibly, to push only nominees and policies that enjoy consensus public support. And here, the GOP said, is the clincher: 99 percent of the time, Obama could rest assured that Republicans would not use it.

Leading Republicans were not alone in bemoaning the evisceration of minority rights. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board ripped Majority Leader Harry Reid’s legion of “young liberals in a hurry” who have “grown up in the Saul Alinsky tradition.” Without the 60-vote hurdle, the editors warned, President Obama would have “a freer hand to pursue his agenda.”  

As it happens, the Reid “power grab” ends the filibuster only for presidential nominees, not other varieties of legislative action to advance Obama’s aggressive statism and fiscal recklessness. So surely Republicans, with the Journal cheering them on, will make muscular use of that 60-vote hammer where they still have it, right?

Not exactly. Witness the Journal’s hatchet job against Senator Ted Cruz for forcing a vote on the debt-ceiling hike.

Just to recap, the nation is already well over $17 trillion in debt — a lowball figure computed under voodoo Beltway accounting protocols that hide tens of trillions more in liabilities. The Republican establishment is to blame for much of this, spending like drunken sailors through the Bush years and nearly doubling — to $10.6 trillion — the debt it had taken Washington over two centuries to amass. Obama, however, has left them in the dust, adding nearly $7 trillion more in just five years, with the once unimaginable $20 trillion threshold close at hand. Meanwhile, as our Kevin D. Williamson explains, the nation is bounding towards “fiscal apocalypse,” driven by both the failure to address unsustainable entitlement obligations and the inevitable twilight of record-low interest rates, portending a cataclysmic spike in debt-service costs.

The people of Texas sent Senator Cruz to Washington to fight against this existential threat, not to talk about fighting it and then assume the Beltway fetal position. The fight is worth making. The 60-vote barrier applies to debt-ceiling legislation — meaning that even with only 45 seats, Republicans have the votes to stop new extensions of our debt-sodden nation’s tapped-out credit card.

Moreover, though they compliantly parrot the administration’s “sky is falling” claims that a failure to raise the statutory debt limit will trigger default, Republicans well know this is abject nonsense. The full faith and credit of the United States depends on paying interest on our bonds, not on underwriting a gargantuan administrative state. As Kevin notes, the government’s net interest payments currently consume only 7 percent of revenue — a $223 billion tab out of the $3 trillion-plus that Uncle Sam confiscates from us. There is thus no possibility of default in the real world.

So Senate Republicans could have refused to authorize more borrowing, more saddling of our children and grandchildren with crushing debt. They had the votes. All that was required was the will to make the fight and the competence to explain how suicidal is Obama’s circular spiel: Congress is cruel and dysfunctional if it fails to green-light spending we cannot afford; then, having approved it, Congress is powerless to do anything but borrow ever more trillions to “pay its bills” — profligacy Obama used to call “unpatriotic” when George Bush held the credit card.

Alas, refusing Obama’s credit extension would have meant fighting him and making the case for limited government. Why would anyone expect Republicans to do that? After all, as they told us during the filibuster theater, 99 percent of the time they don’t. Still, it was just last fall, when the GOP was surrendering in the fight over Obamacare funding, that the Republican establishment vowed to draw a line in the sand over unconstrained government borrowing. “The fight is on the debt limit,” proclaimed Paul Ryan.

Ted Cruz made the mistake of taking them seriously.

It was also just three months ago that Senator McConnell was telling us how critical the 60-vote standard was to making the Senate the world’s greatest deliberative body. Yet, when it came time for the debt-ceiling fight, he was ready to waive it faster than an Obamacare mandate. Fortunately for transparency — meaning, unfortunately for the GOP — it was not his to waive. The rules give every senator the power to call for the supermajority vote. That is all Cruz did: no threats to shut down the government, just a call for his tough-talking Republican colleagues to put up or shut up.

On cue, the GOP’s friends at the Journal complained that by forcing the vote, Cruz undermined the Republicans’ plan to masquerade as stalwart opponents of borrowing and spending. See, McConnell & Co. were planning to skip the 60-vote preliminary, watch Democrats pass the debt-limit hike on a party-line vote, and then pose as anti–Big Government scrooges. With Cruz unwilling to go along with the charade, the all too willing Journal editors were left huffing that they are “all for holding politicians accountable” but only “with votes on substantive issues.”

No, what they’re actually all for is Washington legerdemain. This was a substantive issue. It deserved an accountable vote.

As I’ve noted here before, Republicans use Senate rules to play a con game on the folks back home. In a nutshell, they first arrange things to ensure that Obama gets his way, then formally vote against him once they are certain that opposition is futile.

In the case of the debt-ceiling hike, the rules called for a preliminary “cloture” vote — the vote Cruz demanded, requiring the supermajority of 60 — to determine whether senators believed the bill was ripe for a final up-or-down vote. GOP leaders and their apologists would have you believe cloture is just “procedural,” not substantive — i.e., cloture is just a technical way of saying, “We’ve heard enough talk, now let’s get down to the real business of deciding the merits.” That’s a crock.

When they were in the minority, cloture was how Democrats stopped conservative bills and conservative nominees cold. For the Republican establishment, it became the cudgel for beating down right-wing upstarts: Nothing can happen and no one can get confirmed without 60 votes, you see, so we “pragmatic” grown-ups simply must bite the bullet and accept moderately progressive policies and nominees — these “centrist” Democrats just won’t budge.

Now in the majority with 55 seats (53 Dems plus two nominal independents who vote with them), Democrats remain as disciplined as ever. Unlike Republicans, they stick together to fight for the things (statism, power . . .) they believe in. Does anyone tell them, “Look, nothing can happen without 60 votes, so you’ve got to moderate?” Are you kidding?

Still the stubborn fact remains: Cloture is the only vehicle for stopping Democrats. They cannot get to 60 without Republican help. They cannot enact Obama’s agenda without Republican support. So the truth is exactly the opposite of what GOP leaders and their amen-corner would have you believe. The ballgame is the cloture vote: the only one in which Republicans, by sticking together, have the power to shelve any bill — including any debt-ceiling hike — that they truly oppose. Cloture is the substantive vote because it determines whether the bill will pass. Once the 60-vote hurdle is cleared, it is the final vote that becomes the mere procedural formality.

Of course, to most Americans, this is just a bunch of parliamentary gobbledygook. The Beltway ruling class thus knows it can use the necessity of holding two votes to have it both ways — in the classic John Kerry formulation, to vote for it before they vote against it. Chanting the “it’s just procedural” mantra, Republicans vote in favor of cloture, knowing this ensures that the massive borrowing and spending bills they purport to oppose will move to a final vote, at which point the Democratic majority will rubber-stamp them. When the final vote is taken, Republicans thunderously cast their impotent “nays.” Then, they go back home, wear the nays like battle scars, and tell constituents how vigorously they are fighting against Washington’s wicked ways.

Engaged conservatives are on to the ruse. Notwithstanding the Republican establishment’s campaign to marginalize them as what the Journal obligingly labels a “rump kamikaze caucus,” their ranks are swelling. Without them, the Republicans would not have recaptured the House in 2010. Increasingly, they mount primary challenges against Beltway relics. They don’t win all the time, but they win quite a few — like long-shot Ted Cruz’s stunning primary rout over the party’s preferred candidate. And there is a more serious danger for GOP leadership: The conservative base increasingly wears the establishment’s disdain as a badge of honor.

Beltway Republicans do not seem to grasp how ominous this is. They so crave pats on the head from the “let’s make government work” commentariat that they’ve lost any feel for people who are wired differently, who see government as the problem, and who want it substantially downsized. In the end, the “let’s make government work” crowd is with the Democrats; the “kamikazes” are the ones the GOP must have. Condescension toward the customer is never a particularly good business strategy.

It is fitting that the 60-vote standard Republican leaders told us they needed just a few weeks ago was thrust on them in the matter of debt. They are living on borrowed time.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy.