POLITICS
01/23/2013 12:37 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2013

Debt Ceiling 'Suspension': All You Need To Know About This New Whack-A-Doodle Idea [UPDATE]

The House of Representatives on Wednesday will take up the matter of What To Do About The Debt Ceiling, trying once again to resolve a crisis-inducing impasse of their own design and set up a new crisis-inducing impasse to occur at some later date. Over the weekend and as of Tuesday morning, the plan -- cooked up by House Republicans -- was stupid but simple: they would temporarily raise the debt ceiling for three months, sync the next crisis moment with the budget process, and couple the next agreement to raise the debt ceiling with a requirement to have a debate on the budget in the Senate, thus getting the process of budgeting moving in the Senate.

I call this "stupid" because there's no real reason why the threat of default has to be the thing that gets stalled budget talks moving again. But whatever! As it turns out, while there was plenty of grousing about this whole "three month punt" idea, the word around the campfire was that it could, at least, get passed.

But Tuesday, House Republicans opted to take their "simple and stupid" plan and add a bunch of weird and ornate complications to it, which means that Wednesday's vote on the matter could still devolve into some hilarious crap-show. For example, Greg Sargent reports that "Nancy Pelosi privately urged House Democrats this morning to vote against the House GOP’s plan for a temporary suspension of the debt ceiling," in order to hold out for a "clean debt limit hike, possibly even one that lasts a year."

The Washington Post reported the details of the plan to "suspend" the debt ceiling on Tuesday. While that story has since been updated, Doug Mataconis captured the original report:

Forget about raising the federal debt limit. House Republicans are proposing to ignore it altogether — at least until May 18.

The House plans to vote Wednesday on a measure that would leave the $16.4 trillion debt limit intact but declare that it “shall not apply” from the date the measure passes until mid-May.

This approach — novel in modern times — would let Republicans avoid a potentially disastrous fight over the debt limit without actually voting to let the Treasury borrow more money.

Yes, the key difference here is that rather than "raise" the debt ceiling, the House GOP will instead pass a "suspension" of the debt ceiling. Remember, of course, that the "debt ceiling" is essentially a notional construct -- it's a poorly worded, metaphoric description of a ritual our Congress performs in which, from time to time, they reaffirm their willingness to honor the laws they've passed and the spending they've authorized by formally recognizing the president's obligation to discharge their will. Raising the debt ceiling doesn't actually "raise" anything, nor does it permit or authorize either future spending. So, by saying that they will "suspend" the debt ceiling in this instance, lawmakers are basically calling a metaphysical mulligan.

In practical real-world terms, this is how it works:

The way the bill is written, Republicans won’t technically be voting to raise the borrowing limit by a set amount, as Congress typically has done. Rather, “the bill would suspend the section of the law that mandates a limit on government borrowing” before May 19, explains George Washington University professor Sarah Binder, a congressional procedure expert. Then, on May 19, “the debt limit would automatically be increased to account for the borrowing that occurred during that period.”

But none of the intent of the original plan -- to force the budget process in the Senate to begin anew -- is changed by this complicated conceptional stunt, so why do it at all? That's where the vagaries of having to keep the GOP base come into play.

You see, many Republicans in the House would get in serious trouble if they cast any vote to avoid default that does not come coupled with simultaneous spending cuts. It doesn't matter one whit that default would crater the global economy, or that taking the debt ceiling hostage is psychotically irresponsible. The failure to get spending cuts alongside the raising of the debt ceiling would be a purity-test failure, invoke opprobrium, and would probably lead to some of the GOP's lawmakers getting "primaried" down the road. It is arguable that this is thus worth avoiding -- as these misinformed voters would likely send someone to Congress who understands the basics of governing even less than their predecessors.

At the same time, what's crazy about the plan to suspend the debt ceiling -- just blink the thing out of existence temporarily, and during that period of time we all hold hands and agree that we are allowed to spend money according to the schedule that everyone agreed to in the first place -- is that it basically affirms what some of us have been saying all along: we should just get rid of the debt ceiling altogether, because it's a meaningless ritual on its best day, and a dangerous world-destroying weapon on its worst. As Section IV of the Fourteenth Amendment states, "the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law… shall not be questioned.” This debt ceiling "suspension" is a baby step in the direction of not questioning the validity of the public debt.

So the really stupid thing about this plan is that it wouldn't make the "suspension" permanent. After all, the very fact that we are dismissing it without denying either side the chance to use leverage and bargain its way to a deficit/spending deal proves that it's dumb to use the debt ceiling as leverage in the first place.

That so many people who thought the platinum coin was a zany idea aren't currently having an aneurysm over this galactically nonsensical plan to choreograph a three-month long existentialist tap-break is astounding to me.

UPDATE: And the debt limit suspension passes, 285-144. There were 33 GOP "no" votes and 86 Democrat "yes" votes. On Twitter, Brian Beutler reports the matter straight up: "GOP House votes to increase debt limit without any spending cuts." Remember, though, the whole idea behind this "debt ceiling suspension" is to ensure that the GOP lawmakers who voted for the measure don't get staked through the heart with that headline.

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