James Fallows writes:
…there is no precedent for serious threats not to honor federal debt — as opposed to symbolic anti-Administration protest votes, which both parties have cast over the years. Nor for demanding the reversal of major legislation as a condition for routine government operations.
At Volokh, Jonathan Adler responds:
There’s never been a “serious threat” to refuse to increase the debt ceiling? Glenn Kessler’s already shredded that claim.
Adler is mistaken. Kessler was addressing President Obama’s claim that never before have non-budget items been attacked to the debt ceiling. Obama either misspoke or was just plain wrong, but Fallows is making a different claim than Obama – that previous threats not to honor federal debt were symbolic, not serious. That claim isn’t refuted by Kessler.
Adler goes on:
As this paper documents, “the use of the debt ceiling vote as a vehicle for other legislative matters,” had become a “pattern” in the mid-1970s and 1980s. Indeed, as Kessler notes, “Congress has used the debt limit to repeal a key legislative priority of a president,” and liberal lions like Senators Ted Kennedy and Walter Mondale sought to attach substantive legislation to a debt ceiling increase in the 1970s.
Fallows is right, and the academic paper Alder links to refute Fallows, written by Linda Kowalcky and Lance LeLoup, shows that Fallows is right. That paper makes it clear that those past votes against the debt ceiling being raised were symbolic (emphasis added by me):
A substantial number of legislators in both houses may speak and vote against the debt limit with the knowledge that it will ultimately pass.
But no one thinks it’s certain that Republicans will allow the debt ceiling to be raised. That’s why the US recently had its credit rating lowered, and that’s why the current situation is unprecedented.
The paper Alder links documents that in the past, the pattern has been that the majority party accepts that it has a responsibility to protect America’s credit rating (and the world economy) by gritting its teeth and raising the debt ceiling, while the minority party has traditionally taken the opportunity to grandstand, safe in the knowledge that the minority party would be outvoted, and the debt ceiling would be raised.
Another method used to symbolically oppose the debt ceiling (while still making sure it would pass) was allowing moderate party members to vote as they please, so that a coalition of minority and majority party members pass the debt ceiling while other members cast symbolic votes against it. That’s what the House GOP did under Reagan. Although there was plenty of exciting grandstanding (filibusters, even!), the members of Congress were still certain that the debt ceiling would be raised.
In the House right now, however, it is the majority party that is threatening to push the US into default, and it appears that the GOP leadership intends to not allow centrist Republicans to vote with Democrats to raise the debt ceiling. As a result, the US actually appears to be heading into default.
This is indeed a new and unprecidented situation – at least, during the decades documented by the paper Alder linked to.
And it’s irresponsible to credibly threaten to tank the world economy, and the nation’s economy and credit rating, in order to achieve a legislative victory that could in principle be achieved by more responsible means (i.e., winning elections).
EDITED TO ADD:
1) I think that even a symbolic vote to default – such as many congressfolks have cast, including Obama when he was in the Senate – is also irresponsible. It’s not nearly as irresponsible as a credible threat to refuse to pay the US’s bills is, but it’s still irresponsible. The best thing to do is to simply get rid of the debt ceiling altogether (as has been done in the past).
2) Although I wrote this post, I also think the question of precedent is largely irrelevant. A credible threat to put the US into default is inexcusable and irresponsible regardless of if it’s precedented. Whether there’s precedent or not isn’t what’s important.
If I go outside and kick the crap out of the neighbor dog, I won’t be the first person ever to abuse a dog, but that won’t make what I’m doing right.
Hat tip: Ethics Alarms.