As our looming debt ceiling precipice draws ever closer, Joe Biden is desperate for a deal. The president has already done everything possible to make these negotiations go smoothly: cutting short his overseas trip; holding daily meetings with key players; refusing to undermine discussions in the press. Yet despite all of his efforts, Biden—and the party he leads—is still losing.
There could be many reasons for this, from the absurd flexibility his administration has given Congressional Republicans to those same Republicans’ chaotic intransigence to the Washington press corps treating the whole thing as a game. But these are all excuses compared to the core truth: the only way to win the debt ceiling showdown is not to play.
The debt ceiling is a mechanism slightly older than flapper skirts, initially designed to let Congress pay more than allotted for a little conflict we now know as WWI. In more than a century since, it has gone up mostly without issue or conflict because denying payment for money you’ve already spent is frowned upon by both credit card companies and taxpayers. “Clean” debt ceiling raises, which lift the borrowing limit without threats or coercion, are a normal, even expected, part of government. The temper tantrum that the GOP is throwing — refusing to lift the debt ceiling unless they receive unpopular, ineffective, and draconian restructuring of government spending — has only happened once before. You will be unsurprised to hear that this one other radical departure from good governance occurred under Biden’s old boss, Obama.
The result was a pretty awful austerity plan that increased income inequality and damaged the economy for years. Which explains why many Democrats have argued that Biden shouldn’t take the bait of “negotiating” with legislative terrorists. An even broader and louder swath of left-leaning commentators even suggested doing away with the debt ceiling altogether when Democrats still held a trifecta in Washington.
Of course, Democrats are allergic to good ideas, so here we are: a nation with a nonsensical debt ceiling, held hostage by a bunch of sadistic clowns, whose bargaining position of absolute fiscal calamity is being treated with the utmost seriousness by a man who sees bipartisanship as an accomplishment unto itself.
It’s going about as well as you’d expect.
Republican demands either require the death of the federal government as a functional administrative state, or the implosion of the global economy with the United States serving as its irradiated core. Democrats in both chambers are (reasonably) balking at the terms, asking with increasing intensity that Biden avoid the whole situation. And the President is going down to the wire while trying to split the difference.
Besides premium bonds and trillion-dollar coins, a frequently suggested resolution is the use of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees not only birthright citizenship and equal protection but also the validity of U.S. sovereign debt. Biden and his representatives have been publicly leery of this option because it requires the judiciary to believe in laws instead of its own power, and we know how that’s gone recently.
Nonetheless, using a particular addition to the Constitution might be the path of least resistance. The amendment itself doesn’t have to be invoked; Biden can just say that he is continuing to pay our national obligations as he is Constitutionally required to do. If anyone asks how he’s able to ignore Congress and the debt ceiling, he can just say that he’s carrying out his Article 2, Section 3 responsibilities, and that the 14th Amendment predates and overrides the debt ceiling.
The next question would be who has standing to challenge this interpretation in court, and then whether the court in question even wants to accept the responsibility for default.
It’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy, with the risk being that courts reject the argument and the reward being the end of the debt ceiling and the destruction of political enemies. The former requires Republicans to actively sue for default and a Republican judiciary to actively rule for default, which is likely to make them as popular as hemorrhoids among every faction of the country — including the all-important donor class. The latter removes the hostage of the U.S. and its place in the global economy from the clutches of any future hostage takers and may even prompt some small reflection on how we got to a major party rooting for economic cataclysm.
No matter what, there won’t be a neat ending to these debt ceiling talks. Congressional Republicans have perverse incentives to drive us over the brink, and Democrats missed their opportunity to neutralize the threat. But Biden’s drive to bridge this gap seems to be making it worse. It might turn out that the best option to fix everything is to do nothing.