The Corner

Politics & Policy

Averting A Debt-Ceiling Disaster

Watching the dynamics of the relationship between the administration and the Congress at this point, and listening to some administration officials talk, I can’t shake the sense that real trouble might be coming in the fall, when federal borrowing again hits the debt ceiling.

Technically, the debt ceiling was already reached three months ago, but the Treasury has the ability to move money around to hold off the need for action until some time in October. (Here are some useful details from the Congressional Budget Office on how that works.) This has happened over and over for years, of course, and each time Congress and the president have acted before the deadline. Given the implications of failing to do that, it’s reasonable to assume they will act again. But two distinct kinds of political dynamics are a little more disconcerting this time.

First, the Democrats in the House have fallen into a legislative pattern by which basically all they are really doing is organized by opposition to the president. Mostly that means oversight. And since the administration is not cooperating with their oversight efforts, these efforts are increasingly aggressive and yet also increasingly performative. Oversight is important, and the Trump administration is giving them no shortage of targets. But the predominance of such oversight work creates habits that could make it difficult for the Democrats to advance a debt-ceiling increase without conditions. Beyond oversight, they are passing largely symbolic, party-positioning bills, and these reinforce that same pattern.

Obviously, there is an analogy here to the behavior of House Republicans after the 2010 elections. It is one of many such analogies lately. Nancy Pelosi has so far kept better order in her caucus than John Boehner did in that period, and it’s a little easier to imagine her forcing her members to swallow a clean debt-ceiling vote than it was to see Boehner doing it back then. But I actually think that on the whole Pelosi may be weaker, not stronger, now than Boehner was then. And in any case, as things stand right now House Democrats could be facing some real trouble on that front.

And second, there is talk among some administration officials about various approaches to the “prioritization” of key debt payments—so that even in the absence of an increase in the debt ceiling, the Treasury could still pay creditors by delaying payments of other obligations or contracts. This would make breaching the debt ceiling less catastrophic, since it would avert an actual default on U.S. government obligations. But a less catastrophic breach of the debt ceiling could still be pretty catastrophic, especially in its effects on economic expectations, which can be enormously important to the performance of the economy.

This talk of prioritization is itself an old habit from the peak of the Tea Party era earlier in this decade, and some of the people who were near the center of the action in that time in Congress are now near the center of the action in the administration. There is some internal resistance to this way of thinking about handling debt payments, of course, and prioritization is certainly not the official position of the administration at this point. But again, we’re seeing people building up habits that will not serve them well if the deadline comes with no agreement.

All this suggests it will be crucial to avoid a real all-out confrontation on the debt ceiling, in which each side would be locked into the habits it has built up and neither could afford to back down. That should mean moving on the debt ceiling well before the deadline is reached, and looking for any opportunity to take that issue off the table. Getting well ahead of it by seeing the problem coming is essential to preventing a showdown that neither party is well equipped to handle at the moment.

If you think the president and congressional Democrats are sufficiently self-aware to act in advance to avert a confrontation, then you shouldn’t be worried about the debt-ceiling deadline. But if the past few years in Washington are any indication, then you probably should be worried.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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