To see debt ceiling crises as normal is to miss modern history

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As the current Congress got underway in January, a New York Times report noted that dealing with the debt ceiling would be among the year’s big challenges. “Wall Street analysts and political prognosticators are warning that a perennial source of partisan brinkmanship could finally tip into outright catastrophe in 2023,” the article read.

Nearly all of this was entirely true. Wall Street analysts and political prognosticators — including me — really were issuing all kinds of warnings about the seriousness of the threat. Many, also including me, were also voicing concerns that this might very well be the year in which we see an actual economic catastrophe.

But the part of the sentence that stood out for me was the description of the debt ceiling as “a perennial source of partisan brinkmanship.” A casual reader might see this and think the fight to prevent the United States from defaulting on its obligations is just a routine and unavoidable part of the political process — an annual headache the parties try to exploit.

Except, that’s not quite right. In this context, “perennial” was an adjective that conveyed a misleading message.

The Times’ report came to mind this week watching a CNBC segment on the debt ceiling.

Host Joe Kernen challenged the idea that there were “three clean raises” of the debt ceiling during Donald Trump’s term, and Punchbowl News’s Jake Sherman agreed. “A stand-alone clean debt ceiling is dead on arrival,” Sherman said, adding, “In modern times, the debt ceiling is raised with negotiations.”

Except, like the Times’ report from January, that’s not quite right — and the slipup is emblematic of a larger concern.

To be sure, I can think of a great many instances in which I’ve made a comment on the air that I wish I’d worded better, and my point is not to slam the host or the guest, who might’ve used different phrasing if given a second chance at it. But the broader point is worth understanding in more detail.

First, when Kernen rejected the idea that the debt ceiling was addressed “cleanly” three times under Trump, I suppose there might be some debate over the meaning of the word “clean.” In 2017, 2018, and 2019, Congress approved debt ceiling increases by simply attaching the increases to other bills — a standard move lawmakers have employed for generations.

By most measures, I think this process can fairly be described as “clean”: There were no threats, no hostage tactics, and no demands for ransoms. Congress didn’t add any conditions to the process. Lawmakers did seek or receive any rewards or concessions. The debt limit wasn’t raised by way of stand-alone bills, but there also weren’t any hints of crises — because there were no demands or meaningful strings attached.

More problematic was the assertion that in “modern times,” the debt ceiling was addressed through “negotiations.”

Not really. There were debt ceiling talks in 2011 — though at the time, Barack Obama saw this as an opportunity to engage in budget negotiations, not ransom payments — which participants, including then-Vice President Joe Biden, soon recognized as a messy mistake not to be repeated.

Throughout the remainder of Obama’s presidency, he refused to engage in such discussions. Republicans grudgingly acquiesced and Congress received no treats for agreeing to pay the nation’s bills. During the Trump era, there was no need for debt ceiling negotiations — because Democrats didn’t ask for any. The same was true during George W. Bush’s two terms.

Sure, fiscal debates have unfolded around debt ceiling increases — see the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings process in 1985, for example — but there’s a qualitative difference between budget talks and hostage standoffs.

Let’s not miss the forest for the trees: The Republicans’ 2011 fight was the first time a major American political party used the debt ceiling to threaten to deliberately crash the economy. This year, GOP officials are doing it again. But in “modern times,” at least in this country, policymakers have steered clear of such extortion tactics.

It’s imperative that observers stop seeing the Republicans’ debt ceiling crises as normal and start seeing them as scandalous.

GOP leaders are threatening to harm Americans on purpose, and to shrug one’s shoulders and see this as routine is to miss not only how U.S. politics has traditionally worked, but also how honorable elected officials are supposed to conduct the people’s business.

Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer for “The Rachel Maddow Show,” the editor of MaddowBlog and an MSNBC political contributor. He’s also the bestselling author of “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics.”

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