The week of two high-stakes games of chicken

Neither of these games of chicken would be as fraught if Democrats were united.

SOURCERobert Reich

This week, two high-stakes games of chicken.

The first is between Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans over raising the debt ceiling and extending funding the government beyond Thursday.

These two issues are really quite different: Funding is the more immediate need because if no agreement is reached by Thursday night, the government will shut down. The debt ceiling doesn’t have to be raised until the Treasury runs out of money to pay the government’s bills, which probably won’t happen until late October.  

A higher debt ceiling doesn’t authorize new federal spending; it’s about past spending. Raising it simply allows the government to pay its bills. Failure to raise it by the time the Treasury runs out of money would mean a cataclysmic default by the United States, which has never happened before.

On the other hand, funding the government is about future spending, starting Friday. Without new funding authority, the government can’t spend a dime. This will result in a shutdown. We have been through several in recent memory (I was in two of them when I ran a cabinet department, and I can tell you they aren’t pretty). Some Americans don’t get the services they depend on. Government workers don’t get the paychecks they depend on.

Oh, and there’s a political cost. Generally speaking, the party that voters blame for causing a shutdown is penalized in the next election. (Remember Newt Gingrich?)

So what’s behind this game of chicken?

Republicans don’t want to be seen raising the debt ceiling because they want to run in next year’s midterm elections on “fiscal prudence.” (Ironic note: most of the debt piled up since the debt ceiling was last raised came from Trump and Republican lawmakers). And 99 percent of the public mistakenly believes the debt ceiling is about future spending.

Which is exactly why Democrats are collapsing the two issues together, forcing Republicans into the awkward position of either voting to raise the debt ceiling or causing the government to shut down. 

On Monday, they refused to vote for the combo. But there are still three days left before government funding ends. 

In the meantime – to increase the pressure – the Office of Management and Budget has given federal agencies instructions for what to do in case of a shutdown.

The second high-stakes game of chicken this week is between Democrats in the House: between progressives and so-called “moderates.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, you may recall, promised that the two giant bills now moving through Congress would be voted on together in the House – the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that’s already passed the Senate, and the $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” plan containing the rest of Biden’s agenda (which can only get through the Senate as a “reconciliation” bill requiring a bare majority).

She promised this because House progressives refused to vote for the infrastructure bill without a simultaneous vote on the larger bill, out of fear that moderates would approve infrastructure but then balk on the rest. Yet to be responsive to House moderates, she has promised a vote on infrastructure on Thursday. 

The problem, of course, is she can’t deliver on both promises because the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan isn’t ready. But if Pelosi follows through with the vote on infrastructure without Build Back Better, progressives are threatening to vote against the infrastructure bill. That’s likely to kill the infrastructure bill, because Democrats have a small 3-vote lead over Republicans in the House, and it’s unlikely any Republicans will vote for the bill.

But unless Pelosi allows a vote on infrastructure, at least a dozen moderate Dems have vowed to vote against he bigger Build Back Better bill when it comes up.

Bottom line: Neither of these games of chicken would be as fraught if Democrats were united. Yet although they hold narrow majorities in both the House and Senate, but they aren’t at all united. In fact, they’re less unified than Republicans.

Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy (Senate and House Republican leaders, respectively) simply snap their fingers, and Republicans get in line. But Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi (the Democratic leaders) snap their fingers and Democrats go their separate ways. Biden snaps his fingers and congressional Democrats politely yawn.

Why this asymmetry? Not to over-generalize, but I suspect it’s because Republicans are by nature authoritarian. They’re disciplined. They march together. Democrats by nature are anti-authoritarian. They’re undisciplined. They “let a thousand flowers bloom.”

But make no mistake: This asymmetry could destroy Biden’s entire agenda – and thereby undermine America’s future. The stakes couldn’t be higher.


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