Column: The GOP’s Absurd Debt Ceiling Threat

Several years ago, I was told, the old consensus of fiscal conservatism and limited government was dead. So, you might think I am pleased with the sudden rebirth of enthusiasm for Tea Party-style budget cuts that manifests in the GOP’s brinksmanship over the debt ceiling.

not much.

I’ll touch on the debt ceiling battle, but first let’s take a moment to think about Mitch Daniels, the former Indiana governor who is rumored to be considering a run for Senate in 2024.

Both as governor and as president of Purdue University, Daniels has been perhaps the most successful and astute budget slasher of our lives.

When Daniels left his job at Eli Lilly to become governor in 2005, Indiana was in debt and deficit. He left the state with a triple A credit rating and a $2 billion rainy day fund. When he took over at Purdue, the school had raised tuition every year for 36 straight years. He froze tuition at less than $10,000 for a decade—while increasing revenue. This was amid an era of massive increases in tuition fees at public universities (134% since 2003).

But last week, the Club for Growth, which promotes itself as a leading advocate of limited government and economic conservatism, attacked him for even considering running for Senate. “After 50 years of big government, big pharmaceutical companies, and big academia, Mitch Daniels has forgotten how to fight,” the group declared in an announcement.

I guess it depends on what you mean by combat.

For opaque organizations like the Growth Club, fighting is defined as a performance brawl. The House Freedom Caucus, the tail wagging dog of House Republican Conference Speaker Kevin McCarthy, is such an institution.

In his struggle to become Speaker, McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) has reportedly pledged to hold up debt-ceiling increases in exchange for spending cuts from Democrats. The deadline comes this week. If the limit is not raised, the government will start to run out of cash and the prospect of a debt default will shake the US and global economies.

“If you have a kid, you give them a credit card, and they keep maxing it out, you don’t keep increasing it,” McCarthy said Sunday. “You’ll see first what you spend your money on. How do we cut the items?”

It sounds right and I would love for the GOP gambit to work. But the first problem with this analogy is that you still have to pay your credit card bill for the money you’ve already spent. It’s time to cut back when you spend. The second problem is that Gambit isn’t really about spending.

Republicans – right! – She opposed the massive $1.7 trillion lame duck bill that Democrats put forward last month. But every year of Trump’s presidency, Republicans have approved $1 trillion in sweeping spending bills. And that excludes all of this generous spending on the coronavirus. Pay for the MAGA agenda with a US credit card.

It’s as if these new deficit hawks aren’t against piling up debt, they just want to be the ones to do it.

In 2021, Mick Mulvaney, co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, explained in an interview, the true motives of the group. Early in his presidency, Trump worried that the Freedom Caucus would be a thorn in his side. But Mulvaney, the former acting chief of staff in the Trump White House, said he advised Trump that the group was in fact his base because “the Freedom Caucus is at its core anti-establishment.”

According to Mulvaney, the Freedom Caucus abandoned fiscal conservatism because with Trump in office, “the Freedom Caucus moved kind of front and center on Fox News” and “they realized that there was a lot more energy behind being queer people than is reasonable.”

In other words, when being a rebellious fiscal conservative is annoying, they’ll pack their green eyeshadow. But when one of their leaders is in power, the credit card goes out.

This anti-establishment spirit was on full display in McCarthy’s struggle to become Speaker of the House, and it explains the fierce opposition to helping Ukraine. But it’s also about defining what it means to be a conservative in good standing among many primary voters as well as small and large donors and the institutions that depend on them.

The New Left insurgent spirit of the 1960s, which saw pragmatic progress as a sign of “selling out,” was alive and well in the New Right of the 1920s.

In this climate, the real rebels would be people, like Mitch Daniels, who really want to get something done.


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