Opinion: Debt ceiling debate reveals how House Republicans are weaponizing government

Editor’s note: CNN political analyst Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times bestseller, “Mythic America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past“(basic books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this review are his own.view more comments On CNN.


While House Republicans form a committee to investigate the “weaponization” of the government, they are weaponizing the government.

Led by Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republicans have warned President Joe Biden that they will not vote to raise the debt ceiling when the U.S. hits the $31.4 trillion borrowing limit unless the administration agrees to deep spending cuts.

Never one to miss a good brawl, former President Donald Trump urges his party to ‘get tough’ On the issue of using it as leverage.

If the crisis isn’t resolved and House Republicans don’t vote to raise the debt ceiling, the government won’t be able to borrow the money it needs to pay for the spending Congress has already approved. The U.S. could be forced to default, undermining the credit rating that makes U.S. Treasury bills and notes one of the safest investments in the world. The government may have to delay paying federal workers benefits such as Social Security and wages.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen issued a stark warning last week, saying “failure to meet government obligations will cause irreparable damage to the U.S. economy, the livelihoods of all Americans, and global financial stability.”

Concerned that House Republicans are serious about deploying this budget missile — after all, the party is only a few years away from its concerted efforts to overturn a presidential election — the U.S. is expected to hit the cap as soon as Thursday, but a real crisis could It won’t come until June. To keep things going, Treasury is looking at options, such as shifting money from one sector to another and temporarily halting certain forms of federal investment.

Washington – and elsewhere – fear that elected officials may not be able to end the standoff that led the country to default this summer, causing global financial chaos and instability.

The unfolding political battle is the result of Republicans becoming more aggressive and willing to take actions to gain partisan power.

The measures at the heart of this dangerous chicken game are not part of the Constitution. The federal debt ceiling was enacted by Congress through the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917, just as the United States entered World War I, to give the Treasury Department greater flexibility in handling federal finances. Previously, the department had to wait until Congress approved more funding every time the government needed it.

Raising the federal debt ceiling has been routine for decades. Knowing that the government has to pay the bills, Congress will pass the measure either temporarily or permanently, even if costs balloon during the war.

To be sure, Congress sometimes came close to being too late, such as April 1979, when a vote was held at the last minute, despite technical glitches that delayed payment of some $120 million in debt.

A few months later, the House of Representatives passed a rule — named after a representative. Richard Gephardt – authorizing the House of Commons to automatically raise the debt ceiling when passing budget resolutions, ties the two issues together.

In 1982, the federal debt ceiling was codified into law. The first time the federal government was forced to take “extraordinary measures” to keep money flowing was in September 1985, when Democrats and Republicans failed to agree on a budget. Three months later, Congress permanently raised the debt ceiling to $2.1 billion.

While there have been votes against raising the debt ceiling between the 1980s and 2011, including by Democrats such as then-Senator Joe Biden in 2006, they have been symbolic. Elected officials only take this position when they know there are enough votes to pass. Expressing disapproval of President George W. Bush’s spending on the Iraq war was their goal—not bringing the economy to a standstill.

A truce against the weaponization of this routine ended in 2011. Tea Party Republicans, a radical version of Gingrich-era Republicans, are determined to vote against raising the debt ceiling unless President Barack Obama agrees to massive spending cuts. The government realized that the new generation of conservatives was not fooling around. In this game of eating chicken, they are determined not to shine regardless of the consequences.

In May 2011, the Ministry of Finance took steps to continue paying its debts. Days before the funds were about to run out, the government agreed to pay the ransom. The president signed the Budget Control Act of 2011, which would implement some $920 billion in spending cuts over 10 years, and created a joint select committee to reduce the deficit to recommend further cuts.

Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s, unhappy with the way the talks unfolded, downgraded the U.S. credit rating. “Political brinkmanship in recent months has highlighted what we have seen as U.S. governance and policymaking becoming less stable, effective and unpredictable than we previously believed.”

The Treasury Department has grappled with the issue since that confrontation, including in 2013 and 2014.Frustrated by having to navigate these dangerous political waters, Obama warns “The question here is whether America pays its bills. We’re not a country sitting around. So there’s a very simple solution: Congress empowers us to pay our bills.”

Now, President Biden may face his biggest challenge yet. The new Trumpian Republicans are determined to win the standoff with the administration. According to reports on how McCarthy won the Speaker’s seat, the Californian is willing to make concessions to the most radical members in advancing the strategy and follow through if necessary.

What makes this situation so tragic is that there is no reason for this crisis to happen. While heated debates about government spending are certainly a legitimate part of politics, it shouldn’t be a legitimate and normal part of politics to force a situation that could cause economic disruption after Congress has already reached an agreement on spending.

This, more than almost any other bill, demonstrates the modern Republican Party’s willingness to use almost any democratic process — from Supreme Court appointments to the budget to the Electoral College — as a partisan weapon. House Republicans appear to be betting that taking the necessary steps to force cuts is worth the financial fallout.

At some point, they have to believe that voters will blame the president, not them, if the crisis is not resolved. But the people who will suffer in the end will be voters, living in red states and blue states, who will face the consequences.

If Speaker McCarthy wants to show that he is a serious political leader, he should form a coalition with a handful of moderate Republicans and Democrats to quickly enact measures to raise the debt ceiling, regardless of the risks it may pose to his own future .

All this is all the more reason for Congress to consider serious long-term reform. If one of the two major parties is willing to normalize the weaponization of this process, it is time to change the way it operates and remove the weapons used in partisan warfare.

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