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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy sent a clear signal Tuesday: The chances of a debt limit breach and subsequent government default and economic calamity aren't only very real, but fairly high. Probably higher than 50-50. Maybe a lot higher. And McCarthy has no idea how to get out of it.
McCarthy sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Tuesday morning ostensibly laying out demands for raising the debt limit in order to avoid a U.S. government default. The missive, which hand-waved at a few policy generalities, wasn't a real attempt to negotiate. Instead, the speaker's effort seemed like an attempt to appease various factions within the House Republican conference.
The apparent lack of seriousness with which McCarthy is approaching the debt ceiling deadline, now a few months away, should worry anyone concerned about the stability of the global economy. But it's also a reminder that McCarthy doesn't understand that his true job as speaker includes absorbing punishment as a way to shield his members.
Skilled party leaders such as former speakers Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner and current Senate leaders Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell appreciate that taking the heat — from the public, from party ideologues — it is a key part of leadership. For McCarthy, living up to his responsibilities would mean offering credible ideas to get the talks rolling, even if he faced rebukes from members of his caucus for the sin of engaging with the White House.
Unfortunately, McCarthy is leaning on a familiar playbook. Each time Republicans have controlled the House over the last 30 years, they have chosen to hold the nation hostage over the debt ceiling or government spending bills, or both, by staging extended government shutdowns and dangling the threat of a potentially devastating government default.
(Indeed, Republican majorities keep doing it as a substitute for normal bargaining even when they're not new — thus the extended shutdowns of 2013 and 2017-2018. There has never been an extended government shutdown beyond a long weekend caused by Democrats in Congress; nor have Democrats ever forced a crisis over the debt limit.)
This is massively irresponsible. Republicans are relying on threats instead of the give-and-take of normal bargaining, in which both parties make concessions in return for getting some of their priorities passed. It isn't surprising that the White House responded to McCarthy's letter by saying Biden won't negotiate under those terms.
While House Republicans seem to believe strongly that Democrats should make policy concessions in exchange for raising the debt limit, they collectively and even individually have no real idea of what those concessions should be. And so, more than halfway between the beginning of the current Congress and the expected D (for Default) Day, McCarthy doesn't have anything resembling a real set of demands.
Instead, McCarthy's letter Tuesday had the form of a ransom note, with four bullet points referencing various policy preferences on matters from government spending to securing the border to something about "work requirements" that left unexplained which programs McCarthy might be referring to. At best this represents a movement of 1% toward some sort of future set of real demands, with 99% of the effort intended to play to House Republicans.
Given that many of the things Republicans presumably want, such as spending cuts, are highly unpopular, McCarthy hopes Biden will be the one to propose the specifics. The speaker also apparently expects Biden to turn these vague notions, some of which involve complex policy questions that usually takes months or even years to work out properly, into actual legislation in the next few weeks. Or else.
Biden is offering the only plausible response, which is to reject the entire premise. Refusing to pay ransom isn't a ploy; it's a sensible reaction to Republican rejection of normal dialogue. If he gives in here, then there is no reason Republicans won't repeat what they have done a few months later when spending bills have to be passed to avoid a government shutdown at the start of the government fiscal year, and again and again as long as Republicans control at least one chamber of Congress.
Some House Republicans might actually believe their own claims that a debt ceiling breach wouldn't be a big deal (when in reality, even getting close to the limit has real costs). And a few House Republicans actually might want to see the government default because they believe that economic damage would harm Biden and the Democrats in 2024, regardless of who was at fault.
All of which makes it more likely that we're headed for chaos.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.