October 1, 2017 will be the fourth anniversary of the last time Republicans shut down the government because they felt the rest of us had too many nice things. It happened then because of the debt ceiling, or more accurately, because a bunch of Tea Party wreckers tried to use the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip instead of treating it like what it is: an economic thermonuclear weapon that, if detonated, would lay waste to everything.
Why is the debt ceiling so important? According to Business Week at the time of the last crisis:
Failure by the world's largest borrower to pay its debt -- unprecedented in modern history -- will devastate stock markets from Brazil to Zurich, halt a $5 trillion lending mechanism for investors who rely on Treasuries, blow up borrowing costs for billions of people and companies, ravage the dollar and throw the US and world economies into a recession that probably would become a depression. Among the dozens of money managers, economists, bankers, traders and former government officials interviewed for this story, few view a US default as anything but a financial apocalypse.
Before 2013, no one in Congress had ever dreamed of screwing around with the debt ceiling. It was raised whenever necessary in a pro forma vote that was as common, and essential, as you and I taking our next breath. Suddenly, four years ago, there was an influx of right-wingers into Congress who went to the Tom Coburn School of Economics -- there actually is no such thing as the debt ceiling, don'tcha know -- and decided to wrap their hands around the lightning.
Back then, the fight was about defunding the Affordable Care Act; about cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security; about then-Speaker John Boehner getting dragged into battle by his Tea Party flank with the debt ceiling as their doomsday weapon. They tried this number in 2011 and managed to get the nation's credit rating downgraded. In 2013, it led to more than two weeks of government shutdown and an eventual humiliating retreat by the Republican Party. The federal government went back to work on October 17, and the issue of the debt ceiling has lain dormant ever since.
Here we go again, probably. The debt ceiling must be raised by congressional vote no later than September 29 of this year, and already, some of the same strange minds from 2013 are lining up to play with fire again. The song, as Led Zeppelin reminds us, remains the same.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), channeling Speaker Boehner for The New York Times, October 2013: "Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican close to Mr. Boehner, said he believed that the speaker would like to see a deal that included a new way of calculating inflation that would slow the growth of federal benefits; a means testing for Medicare, as well as some other Medicare savings; and at least some slight changes to the Affordable Care Act, like a repeal of a medical device tax unpopular with some Democrats."
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) this week on MSNBC: "Most Republicans want to do something to lower the trajectory of the debt. I mean, a clean debt ceiling hike is like having a credit card and saying 'I've reached my limit, I'm just going to change the limit higher without changing any of my spending habits.' That's a tough sell to Republicans."
Rep. Cole is not alone, but he and his cohort are definitely bucking Republican Party leadership this time around. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, are desperate to see a "clean" debt ceiling bill pass both chambers of Congress as soon as possible.
Even Mick Mulvaney, the current director of the Office of Management and Budget who helped invent the idea of turning the debt ceiling vote into a hostage crisis back when he was in the House, is going along for the ride. Leadership needs this to go smoothly not only to keep the economy from eating itself, but to prove to the wider world that they can actually accomplish something with a government controlled in triplicate by their own party.
They know they'll need Democratic help to pass this, and the Democrats have made it abundantly clear that anything attached to a debt ceiling bill is dead on arrival. Democrats in the Senate also have the ability to filibuster anything they don't like on this issue, which adds to their leverage.
There has been talk of Democrats using that leverage to extract some of their own concessions during the upcoming negotiations, like, for example, making sure President Trump and some congressional bitter-enders can't sabotage the Affordable Care Act from the inside out. Like as not, however, the Democrats will probably choose to try herding their noisy cousins to a "Yes" vote on a clean bill and get this damned thing off everyone's desk before someone gets hurt.
Don't count on smooth sailing with this, no matter how adamant the GOP leadership may be. Within the convoluted confines of the Republican Caucus, the Earth is flat, there is no gravity, dinosaurs never existed because they aren't mentioned in the Bible, and the threat of breaking the debt ceiling is an excellent way to transfer billions of dollars in social safety net funding to their wealthy benefactors.
These people have not made a habit of going gently into that good night, as the recent health care debacle made abundantly clear. There is no reason to expect anything different this time around. On the hook is nothing more or less than the economic existence of the United States. September 29 is D-Day. I'll see you on the beach.