Talking Points

The debt ceiling: A fight about nothing

The United States is once again coming perilously close to defaulting on its debt, even though it has no economic reason to do so. During the Obama years, Republicans engaged in regular bouts of brinkmanship over the debt ceiling, demanding the administration enact the preferences of the Freedom Caucus. But today, the hostage takers have no demands. So what is the fight actually about?

Like a Seinfeld episode, this debt ceiling fight is about nothing. But it could still do real damage — and it's not only the Republicans who are to blame.

The Democratic position is that Republicans should join in raising the debt limit because they share the responsibility for the rising debt — as they unquestionably do. Raising the ceiling shouldn't be a political football, but a routine matter, since the real decisions are made when taxes and spending levels are set by Congress.

Coming together that way would certainly be better than these constant pointless battles. But getting political cover is hardly something worth risking the full faith and credit of the federal government over. If the Democrats could eliminate the debt ceiling problem on their own, surely that would make more sense than joining the Republicans' incredibly risky game.

And the Democrats had every chance to do so. They could have included an increase in the debt ceiling in the original reconciliation bill, for example, or passed a standalone debt ceiling raise through reconciliation. They could eliminate the filibuster for debt ceiling bills on a party-line basis, just as Republicans did for judicial nominees — or they could eliminate the filibuster entirely in the same manner. All these choices carry political risks, but they are all within the Democrats' power, and are obviously superior to allowing a default.

So why haven't they done any of them? Because they are trying to force the Republicans to take responsibility for their role in the government's fiscal situation, and trying to force them to admit with a vote what they overwhelmingly admit to the press: that the debt ceiling must be raised, full stop.

But that's the thing about being the governing party: You have to govern. If Democrats had wanted to set a positive example, they could have eliminated the debt ceiling entirely as soon as they got the majority. That would have been the right thing to do, and politically wise as well, since it would deprive future Republican majorities of a hostage to take.

Instead they're playing chicken in order to prove that Republicans are the irresponsible party. What a responsible thing to do.