Opinion

Democrats' mini-nuke option to stave off economic collapse

They could use their congressional majorities to pass some laws

America has two more looming crises to add to our pile. In addition to climate change, galloping Republican extremism, income inequality, and the ongoing global pandemic, the U.S. is close to breaching the debt ceiling and shuttering our own government.

Happily, these new problems are comparatively easy and simple to fix. Democrats just need to amend the filibuster to create a loophole for matters related to the debt ceiling and continuing resolutions. If getting rid of the filibuster entirely is the "nuclear option," think of this as a mini-nuke that could save Democrats a major headache and stave off economic apocalypse.

Republicans will whine, but this isn't a radical idea. In fact, they did something similar themselves.

Remember that the debt ceiling is a pointless legal anachronism from a century ago. When budgets are passed, they almost always require more borrowing. But if a random amount of borrowing is reached, Congress has to raise the total, i.e. the debt ceiling. Come mid-October, if nobody has gotten around to abolishing the current ceiling (or raising it to Graham's Number), the government will run out of borrowing authority.

At the same time, the government is nearing a shutdown. Because its so dysfunctional, Congress almost never passes regular order budgets anymore. Instead we get "continuing resolutions" about once a year, which are required to keep normal government operations going. On Oct. 1, the current resolution will expire, and the government will grind to a halt.

What is Congress doing with these pending deadlines? The House has passed a continuing resolution to fund the government and suspend the debt ceiling until after the 2022 elections — it's not much, but at least it's something. Unfortunately, this bill is subject to normal Senate rules, which means it can (and will) be filibustered by Senate Republicans. Democrats could get around that roadblock with a reconciliation bill, but that process is likely too long to complete before a shutdown begins.

But 51 votes can quickly change the rules of the Senate. Democrats could vote to amend the filibuster so continuing resolutions and debt ceiling bills (like the one in the House) can pass with a simple majority vote. Democrats passed just such an amendment in 2013 regarding federal judges, and Republicans did the same in 2017 regarding Supreme Court justices. It would take a few minutes, tops.

The need is urgent. As Jeff Stein writes at The Washington Post, economists estimate "a prolonged impasse over the debt ceiling would cost the U.S. economy up to six million jobs, wipe out as much as $15 trillion in household wealth, and send the unemployment rate surging to roughly 9 percent." And, as The Post's Greg Sargent adds, if Republicans reclaim the House and/or Senate in the midterms, they're virtually guaranteed to take the debt ceiling hostage to force concessions from President Biden. That's what they did in 2011 and 2013, and the GOP is dramatically more radical today than it was then. Democrats would be wise to abolish the debt ceiling now instead of merely suspending it until Republicans are back in charge.

Now, there are other potential solutions to these problems. The debt ceiling could be bypassed by minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin. Biden could simply declare the ceiling unconstitutional. Nor are government shutdowns legally necessary; they're the result of a legal opinion from former President Jimmy Carter's Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti about the 1870 Antideficiency Act. Before 1980, if Congress failed to pass a budget on time (and it often did), government agencies just kept going on their previous funding track without a shutdown. Biden needn't be bound by Civiletti's hairsplitting, hyper-literal memo about an anti-corruption law that never specifically addresses congressional failure to pass a budget.

Those are real options, but Democrats would be better served by the bigger — and wholly feasible — fix. Any self-respecting legislature would not possibly allow itself to be snarled up by its own goofy rules like this. Denmark technically has a debt ceiling, for example, but the Danish parliament keeps it far above the existing quantity of debt. "The explicit intent of this move — supported incidentally by all the major parties in the Danish parliament — was to ensure that the Danish debt ceiling remained far in excess of outstanding debt and would never play a role in day-to-day politics," Jacob Funk Kirkegaard writes

That's how you deal with a silly technical triviality causing endless, needless problems: by fixing it. Stumbling from crisis to crisis artificially contrived by arbitrary rules we could change at any moment makes the Congress of the United States an international laughingstock. Just writing about this stuff is exhausting.

The filibuster remains because a handful of Senate Democrats nonsensically insist it's a cherished tradition (it isn't) or that it enables bipartisanship (it doesn't). But if we must keep the filibuster, why not make this small tweak and defuse the political pipe bomb Congress put under its own hindquarters? Come on, Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), why not take some pride in your position and wield some power? Why not try governing?

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