After already securing agreements for deep spending cuts earlier this year, House Republicans are poised to force a government shutdown to demand even more austerity. Democrats seem ill-prepared to stand up to the GOP’s hostage-taking.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) talks to the press outside his office during the last debt ceiling standoff. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

It’s that time of year again. Republicans are not satisfied with the economic pain Joe Biden and the Democrats are already inflicting on the country by restarting student loan payments, kicking people off Medicaid, and canceling the expanded tax credit that dramatically cut child poverty and food insecurity. It’s not enough for the GOP that Biden already caved in May and agreed to cut spending, make it harder to get food stamps, and reduce funding for the IRS to enforce the tax code in exchange for not shutting the government down.

Predictably, Republicans want to cause even more economic distress for those who can least afford to bear it, and they’re willing to shut the government down to make sure that happens. A shutdown, which is looking more likely by the day, will not only cause immediate pain to hundreds of thousands of federal employees and millions of people who depend on government services — the GOP is also almost certainly unwilling to agree to a deal to keep the government running unless it cuts more money from already meager social programs.

A strongly pro–Donald Trump faction of House Republicans is leading the charge, most recently voting down a routine motion that would allow defense appropriations for the year to proceed. While a few of this crew have decried supposedly “woke” practices in the military, for the most part the defense budget isn’t the real target. Rather, they are trying to force concessions before negotiations even begin, using procedural maneuvers to prevent the House from doing business unless GOP leadership commits in advance to even more stringent budget cuts — a proposition that Democrats will surely reject.

The same clique has been a thorn in the side of Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy since before he took up the job. By the time a new congressional session officially starts, the House speaker’s election is usually a foregone conclusion, but this year the far-right Freedom Caucus forced fifteen votes in an open session, extracting more concessions and further humiliating from McCarthy with each round. That experience left a bad taste in the mouths of many (relatively) moderate Republicans. Partly as a result, there seems to be some tactical disagreement over whether it is wise for the GOP to pursue another shutdown. 

But as is often the case in Washington, the real debate is over whether to cut more, or to cut a lot more. In May, after months of saying he wouldn’t negotiate on the debt ceiling, Joe Biden agreed to a deal to keep the government from defaulting on its debt in exchange for deep spending cuts. At the time, many people (including me) said that he was giving the GOP two bites at the apple. That is, Biden agreed to one set of cuts in May, but this predictably didn’t placate the most extreme wing of the GOP — it simply gave them more favorable terrain on which to demand more cuts.

What Will Democrats Do?

No one seems to know what comes next. Biden and House Democrats have declined to throw McCarthy a lifeline by, for example, voting with the majority of Republicans to advance the Pentagon bill or on other procedural matters. Instead, Democrats have shown unusual unity, with every single House Democrat voting against McCarthy and letting so-called “moderate” Republicans swim with the hard-right sharks they’ve spent years throwing chum to.

The question is how long they will be willing to hold the line. Democrats will have to negotiate with McCarthy eventually and, indirectly, with the wing of his party that is currently devouring him. And just like in May, there is little evidence that Biden or the Democrats have thought about how to spear the sharks themselves when the moment comes.

Whether it is accepting a smaller-than-needed post-COVID stimulus package, reneging on his effort to cancel student debt, caving to Republican threats about the debt ceiling the first time around, or letting child poverty and hunger shoot back up after they were cut in half, Biden has his routine down pat: he wishes there was something he could do, but the Republicans (or sometimes, conservative Democratic senator Joe Manchin) have tied his hands.

That’s true to a point, but not as often as Biden says it is. Sometimes, he really does have to negotiate with Republicans, and an exceptionally weak leader like Kevin McCarthy makes that more difficult. But like with canceling student debt, there is plenty Biden could do to prevent the worst when it comes to the Republicans’ threats to shut down the government.

Even Biden’s own treasury secretary says the debt ceiling shouldn’t exist.

Though it’s too late now, when they controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, Democrats could have either abolished the statutory debt ceiling (which virtually no other country in the world has) or set it to some figure so astronomically high as to effectively abolish it. Even Biden’s own treasury secretary says the debt ceiling shouldn’t exist.

Perhaps because they themselves like the excuse to impose austerity, the Democrats didn’t get rid of the debt ceiling when they had a chance. But Biden still has two options. The first is to mint more money and use it to pay the debt, and the second is to simply order the government to keep paying the debt, invoking the Fourteenth Amendment clause that states that the government’s debts “shall not be questioned.” While neither of these tactics has been tried before, and therefore carry some risk, both have been advocated by numerous scholars, and not just those on the Left.

At some point, the risk of trying something new has to be weighed against the risk of doing nothing. That is: the risk of acute pain for hundreds of thousands of government workers who won’t get paid, of long-term suffering for millions of people affected by whatever cuts the GOP extracts in exchange for deigning to let the government operate, and of the grinding loss of faith in the state to enact even its most basic functions.

Unfortunately, it looks like Biden’s priority above all is not to rock the boat. Let’s hope the sharks don’t knock it over anyway.

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