The Ingenious, Patriotic Cynicism of Mitch McConnell

McConnell's plan to give the president the power to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling is devious, convoluted, and cynical. I love it.

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Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell's debt ceiling proposal is a bolt of lightening from a dark cloud of cynicism, illuminating the debt ceiling for the nakedly political weapon that it has always been.

In other words: I think I like it! Before we get to why, let's remember how we got here.

The debt ceiling, which sets a legal limit on U.S. borrowing, must be raised before August 2. This is not an unusual thing. In fact, it's as common as summer, or Christmas. We've raised the debt ceiling 10 times in the last 10 years. Each time, the minority party used the vote to stage a public relations revolt against the majority. In the last four House debt ceiling votes tracked by Donald Marron at the Tax Policy Center, the majority party outvoted the minority 871-3. Yes, you read that right.

For the past few weeks, Republicans and Democrats have been dutifully re-staging this annual farce by ostensibly negotiating to cut trillions of dollars from the budget in exchange for another increase. I say "ostensibly"* because "negotiation" implies a central disagreement over a course of action. But all major players involved (the White House, John Boehner, Harry Reid) wanted the same thing. They wanted to raise the debt ceiling to avoid a technical default. Better to think of this, not as a negotiation, but a game with two simple rules. Collectively, each player must ensure the debt ceiling goes up. Individually, each player must come out looking better than the other side.

The deficit negotiations have gone through more iterations than one can count, but the upshot is that they failed when Republicans walked away from a deal that would cut more than $3 trillion in spending in the next decade. In exchange for trillions in domestic cuts and benefit changes to Social Security and Medicare, the White House wanted about $800 billion in closed tax loopholes that would disproportionately affect the wealthy. Republicans balked. Exeunt compromise. Enter McConnell.


In a sentence, McConnell's plan gives the president the power to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling unless Congress rebuffs him with a two-thirds majority. In a paragraph (as I understand it), the proposal goes like this. The president announces a plan to raise the debt ceiling and writes some nonbinding promise to cut spending. He passes that plan to Congress. Congress votes against it. The president vetoes. The plan goes back to Congress. Republicans still vote against it. Enough Democrats join the White House prevent an override. And by failing to override the president's veto, Congress will succeed in approving a debt ceiling increase. This process will repeat itself three times before the end of 2012.

Quick reminder: The proposal on the table this weekend would have reduced outlays by $3.2 trillion. This plan is guaranteed to cut zero dollars.**

Why would Republican leadership propose this? Because it knows two things: (1) the debt ceiling must go up, and (2) the conservative House won't vote for a compromise. This plan gives the GOP both things, a higher debt ceiling and a way to vote "no." By suspending the legislative branch's ability to govern, it saves America's credit. It's cynical and patriotic at the same time.

When I read the news, my gut reaction, via Twitter, was "I can't believe the McConnell Plan actually exists. It's so devious, convoluted, cynical, and soulless, it's like Kafka on the Potomac." But on reflection, I've moved from disbelief to bemusement to something like endearment. Who cares if Congress loses control of the debt ceiling? It's not a governing tool anyway. It's a political theater prop without legislative purpose, and this proposal treats it appropriately. Most importantly, the McConnell plan pushes spending cuts off the table at a time when government employment has now fallen by a higher share since Obama's first month than the private sector.

There is a sense among some writers that this plan is a moral abomination that moves Congress one step closer to a dystopia where government does not govern anything, but instead takes a series of empty symbolic votes they can advertise in their home district for the purpose of being reelected to take more rounds of empty symbolic votes. Maybe that's right. But let's fight that fight another day. For now, I'll take America's borrowing authority with a side of no spending cuts.

* Also because it was never clear that Republicans would vote for a tax increase, which Democrats required, or that Democrats would agree to entitlement cuts, which Republicans required.

** From the White House's point of view, this deal has a different downside. A $4 trillion budget deal might have mitigated the GOP's ability to hit the White House on the deficit in 2012. On the other hand, spending cuts in the next 12 months could have hurt a weak economy, damaging Obama's turnaround narrative.