Punt Formation?

[ Posted Monday, May 8th, 2023 – 16:17 UTC ]

I realize it is the wrong season for this sports metaphor, but it now seems that the most likely outcome of the debt ceiling showdown is going to include a punt. For any long-term solution to emerge, there's going to have to first be a short-term solution that kicks the ball down the field a bit.

It is now crunch time. Tomorrow, President Biden will meet with the four congressional leaders (the leaders of both parties in both houses) for the first time in months. They are miles apart on what they want to see happen, and nobody really expects a huge breakthrough compromise to emerge from tomorrow's meeting. But the drop-dead date has been moved up to (possibly) the first of June, which only leaves a little more than three weeks to do something, or else the United States is going to default on its debt for the first time in history.

Getting all sides to a deal is going to be extremely hard, if not downright impossible. But even assuming a deal is somehow possible, there isn't really enough time for any major compromise to be written into legislative budget language and pass both chambers of Congress. Even if Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy reached some sort of big-picture deal tomorrow (which, as mentioned, does not seem particularly likely), it might be impossible for them to implement it before the Treasury runs out of money.

So what is almost certainly going to have to happen is that a bill will have to pass which extends the debt ceiling for a very short time -- perhaps as short as a few weeks, but one month seems more likely -- while the larger deal gets written into budget bills.

If tomorrow's talks break down -- if the leaders emerge and report that no progress has been made at all -- then the financial markets may start to react in very negative ways. This will increase the pressure on everyone involved, obviously. This isn't a matter of just threatening a government shutdown and shuttering all the national parks for a week or two, instead this threatens the global trust in America's financial stability. How can other countries and investors have faith that we'll pay our debts when our government goes through these self-inflicted hostage-taking crises on a regular basis? This isn't just a political game, in other words, this could do lasting damage for a very long time to come.

Unfortunately, this is no more than a political game for some. Republicans figure they will probably benefit politically if the American economy went into a recession this year, and destroying confidence in our ability to pay our debts would certainly cause one -- but almost as a byproduct of even worse consequences.

But although they certainly are driving their party's agenda right now, the extremists aren't the only wing of the Republican Party. There are House GOP moderates who know full well their seats might be in jeopardy in the next election if they take part in destroying the American economy. And that's where the key to a solution -- at least in the short term -- might be found. As a Washington Post economics columnist pointed out today:

The endgame will be defined by two numbers: 60 (the number of votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster) and 218 (a bare majority of the House). How will these numbers be reached? In both chambers, the answer is the same: from almost all Democratic members, plus a handful of moderate and pragmatic Republicans. This is the outcome that requires the least political risk to the fewest number. And based on conversations with members of both parties, it looks to me to be the only default-avoiding scenario that is politically plausible.

. . .

Any such compromise is unlikely to be hashed out by Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and President Biden. Given his tenuous hold on his caucus, McCarthy can't associate himself with a deal that most Republicans will vote against. Rather, the negotiations will be driven by the moderate Republicans willing to vote for it. And for them, the best negotiating partner is not the Democratic president running for reelection but the moderates from the other party with whom they've crafted bipartisan deals in the past, including last year's landmark bill on infrastructure and semiconductors.

These "gangs" have developed a knack for coming up with compromises that have broad popular support while allowing both parties to declare some sort of victory. Quiet discussions about a debt ceiling deal are already underway among these members in the House and the Senate. All it would take is a quiet nod from the White House and congressional leaders to kick things into higher gear.

This effort is already underway, as a different Post column points out:

In the face of staunch resistance, some Democrats have tried to devise their own solutions. In the House, party lawmakers took the first procedural step last week toward forcing a vote on a bill that would raise the debt ceiling without immediate spending cuts. But the effort, announced by [House Minority Leader Hakeem] Jeffries, still faces tall odds because it requires a handful of Republicans to lend their support.

Still another proposal -- put forward by the roughly 60 centrist Democrats and Republicans in the Problem Solvers Caucus -- would increase the debt ceiling until the end of the year to allow the budget and appropriations process to play out. [Problem Solvers Caucus Co-Chair Representative Josh] Gottheimer said lawmakers are at work turning that blueprint into legislation, which would create a special commission to study and recommend long-term spending cuts. It could then be grafted on top of the bill that House Democratic leaders are trying to force onto the chamber floor, the congressman said.

This would have the benefit of shoving most of the tough choices about the budget off onto a new commission, which would lessen the political price for members of Congress. That's the basic idea, at any rate. And an extension until the end of the year is a lot better than one of just a few weeks or a month, because it would give enough time to fully hash all the budget issues out.

Whether tied to the debt ceiling or not, House Republicans are obviously in a budget-cutting frenzy. This means that Democrats, from Biden on down, are going to have to agree to some of the Republican measures sooner or later (a new budget is theoretically supposed to be in place by October). But Republicans are not going to get everything they are now asking for either, so they'll have to take a political hit as well.

This all might have to include some strange concessions, as that first article goes on to point out:

Moderate Republicans were among McCarthy's earliest and most loyal supporters, and he has been careful to include them in his inner circle. Now they will be looking for assurances from their speaker that they won't be punished for signing on to a bipartisan compromise. (Remember Liz Cheney?) McCarthy's willingness to provide such protection, in turn, might depend on quiet assurances from Democrats to provide enough votes to allow him to survive any effort by members of his own party to oust him as speaker. Two previous Republican speakers, John A. Boehner and Paul D. Ryan, were driven from the chair after flirting with bipartisan compromise. To play a constructive role, McCarthy needs to be confident that this won't happen to him.

That'd be a pretty bitter pill for Democrats to swallow -- having to prop up McCarthy if a revolt happens within his own ranks. But stranger things have happened, I suppose.

The White House is considering other routes as well, where they might act unilaterally. A court case was just filed by the National Association of Government Employees that challenges the debt ceiling itself as being unconstitutional (the Fourteenth Amendment states that the national debt "shall not be questioned"). This might be a legal vehicle for the White House to use to put the matter before the Supreme Court, because any unilateral move by the president will indeed be challenged in the courts by the Republicans. If the Supreme Court agrees that the debt ceiling is completely unconstitutional, then the entire problem disappears. But who knows how this particular Supreme Court will rule? It's obviously a big gamble.

At this point, just watching from the sidelines, it sure does seem like we're getting close to a "fourth and long" situation where the only real answer is to punt. No matter which route negotiations take -- both sides working hard to come up with a viable compromise, or a complete stalemate, or a total breakdown in talks -- what will likely happen first is a short-term extension of the debt ceiling. This may come about without Kevin McCarthy's blessing or support, if the Democrats' "discharge petition" bill makes it to the floor (the discharge petition is a vehicle where a majority of the House can force a bill onto the floor over the speaker's objection). This seems more likely than McCarthy himself authoring a short-term extension, because if he didn't support such a move he wouldn't have to take heat from his own extremist faction.

Right now, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the drop-dead date could come as soon as the first of June. Which is less than four weeks away. Personally, I don't expect a grand bargain to be struck by then. Any sort of grand bargain, just to be clear. I think if some eventual compromise measure does pick up enough support to make it through Congress, it's not going to even be possible in the next three weeks. Of course, this is just guesswork on my part, but in modern times betting that Congress won't actually meet their deadlines is usually the safe bet. Whatever "punt" measure happens, it seems certain that the big showdown over the debt ceiling and the budget isn't likely to be fully resolved in the next three weeks.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


4 Comments on “Punt Formation?”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    it's a good time for a bold move. i imagine the president is now in discussions to allow the sane wing of the GOP to save face and do something "bipartisan," but i also don't doubt that he's holding a few of the more drastic options in reserve, and has them fully planned out just in case.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    hey, Joshua, I love the way you think! :)

  3. [3] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Whether tied to the debt ceiling or not, House Republicans are obviously in a budget-cutting frenzy. This means that Democrats, from Biden on down, are going to have to agree to some of the Republican measures sooner or later (a new budget is theoretically supposed to be in place by October). But Republicans are not going to get everything they are now asking for either, so they'll have to take a political hit as well.

    Really? Just why the bleep do the Dems have to politically cut their own throats in this manner? Why shouldn’t Dems simply say if you care about the deficit then repeal Trump’s vastly unpopular tax cuts for the rich?

  4. [4] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Chris I don’t think you’re “over” being affected by Conventional Wisdom.

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