The GOP Debt Ceiling Strategy: Lies, Grabassery and Default Denialism

The Republican Party’s geyser-like misinformation campaign regarding the government shutdown, accompanied by continued misinformation about the Affordable Care Act and the debt ceiling, has been almost too powerful to follow as it whizzes by.

The latest line, which appears to have convinced a majority of Republican voters, is that nothing will happen if the debt limit isn’t raised, least of all a default. As I pointed out yesterday, this is complete nonsense. We’ve heard this before in the form of denying the climate crisis in the face of almost unanimous scientific consensus. In this case, dozens of experts are forecasting the worst possible consequences if the House GOP doesn’t perform what was formerly a very customary task, devoid of melodrama or hostage-taking.

Yes, it’s true. Until 2011, Congress has never used the debt ceiling as a political hostage. Not once.

So when Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said the following on Sunday’s edition of This Week with George Stephanopoulos, he was lying. Again.

Listen, the debt limit is right around the corner. The president is saying, ‘I won’t negotiate. I won’t have a conversation.’ Even though, President Reagan negotiated with Democrats who controlled the Congress back then. Even though President George Herbert Walker Bush had a conversation about raising the debt limit. During the Clinton administration, there were three fights over the debt limit. You and I participated in several of those. And even President Obama himself in 2011, went through a negotiation.

Once again, Boehner is exaggerating something else and making it seem as if debt ceiling brinksmanship always happens. As Steve Benen pointed out yesterday, out of 45 votes to raise the debt ceiling, there have been exactly seven debt ceiling increases that were a part of separate budget negotiations. Seven out of 45. This, of course, is very different from refusing to raise the debt ceiling or else, because to do what Boehner and the House GOP are doing today was never on the table before 2011 — it was considered to be so preposterous and irresponsible that no one dared to try it. What happened in those seven cases was a debt ceiling increase was more akin to a deal sweetener — not the centerpiece of the negotiation.

No, Mr. Boehner, the Democratic House didn’t hold the debt ceiling hostage under President Reagan. They didn’t do it under President Bush (41). The Republicans didn’t do it under President Clinton, probably because they were busily mustering a pretext for impeachment. The Democrats didn’t do it to President Bush (43) — and they certainly had plenty of reasons, from a $1 trillion tax cut to the Iraq War, and so many points in-between. Nope. It’s always been out of bounds to play grabass with something as utterly precarious as the full faith and credit of the United States. Why? Because prior to the emergence of the tea party, both parties knew that disaster would follow a default. I’m sure you can vividly recall what happened when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in September, 2008. The U.S. debt is 23 times larger than Lehman’s debt. Now imagine a default.

Raising the debt ceiling was always an opportunity for one thing: the opposition party could score some points on fiscal responsibility via a few strongly-worded floor speeches. But the congressional Republican caucus’ strategy is to threaten a default, then to mislead the public by suggesting that nothing bad will happen. And why? They say it’s because of the size of the debt, and the fact that Obamacare isn’t working (even though it was only just implemented the other day). But a glance at the numbers shows that Obamacare will reduce the deficit, and even though the debt continues to rise, the budget deficit has been cut in half under this president, dropping to around two percent of GDP by the end of the president’s second term.

So, what we’re left with is a Republican caucus that’s using the riskiest strategy any Congress has ever devised in order to, what? If this was really about Obamacare, they’d do what all parties have done: vote to repeal it, or run against it in an election. But both approaches have failed so far, and rather than to look like failures in the face of an increasingly screechy tea party base, they’re willing to take a measure so extraordinarily irresponsible it’s never been tried in the history of the republic — while also lying about it every step of the way. They want this law to fail, and with it the president’s legacy, and so they’re willing to risk a global depression.

As Matt Yglesias observed yesterday, if this is so commonplace and if nothing will happen after the debt ceiling deadline passes, how can this possibly give the GOP any leverage? Another sign of an incoherent strategy, yet a strategy that could do serious harm — and that’s understating the impact. This is like the Three Stooges monkeying around with a nuclear warhead. What could possibly go wrong? In this case, just about everything.

And the debt ceiling issue is so completely mental that it’s easy to forget that we’re in the middle of a government shutdown precipitated by the same crowd.

Bob Cesca is the managing editor for The Daily Banter, the editor of, the host of the Bubble Genius Bob & Chez Show podcast and a Huffington Post contributor.

Bob Cesca is the host of the Bob Cesca Show podcast, a twice weekly political talk show. He’s also a contributor to Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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