Mitch McConnell Doesn't Understand What the Debt Ceiling Is

Now that Republicans have pretty much resigned themselves to the idea that there is going to be some kind of tax increase for the wealthy, they're comforting themselves with the idea that come early next year, they'll still be able to re-enact the lovely conflict we had over the debt ceiling in 2011 and hold the American economy hostage to their demands. President Obama has quite sensibly said that we ought to just get rid of the debt ceiling itself, since it serves no purpose and allows a party to engage in just this kind of economic blackmail if it's desperate and cynical enough. So Republicans are pushing back, none more so than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But in the process, McConnell has revealed that he has no idea how the debt ceiling actually works.

What McConnell has been saying is that if we eliminate the debt ceiling, it will give the president all kinds of new powers, to spend money willy-nilly however he wants to, run up the debt, and generally become a kind of fiscal dictator. Yesterday he said about the prospect of eliminating the debt ceiling, "I don’t think that there's any sentiment whatsoever for giving the President perpetual authority without congressional involvement." And last week in a speech on the Senate floor, he said this:

By demanding the power to raise the debt limit whenever he wants by as much as he wants, he showed what he’s really after is assuming unprecedented power to spend taxpayer dollars without any limit. This isn’t about getting a handle on deficits or debt for him. It’s about spending even more than he already is. Why else would he demand the power to raise the debt limit on his own? And by the way, why on earth would we even consider giving a President who’s brought us four years of trillion dollar deficits unchecked authority to borrow – he’s the last person who should have limitless borrowing power.

Wow, that really would be terrible, if the president had "unprecedented power to spend taxpayer dollars without any limit," with "unchecked authority to borrow." The only trouble is that eliminating the debt ceiling does nothing of the sort. In case you've forgotten your fourth-grade civics, Congress sets the budget, not the president. The president can't spend a dollar that Congress doesn't appropriate. He can't borrow a dollar that Congress hasn't said he should borrow. When we reach the debt limit and then go past it, it isn't because of anything the president has done, it's because of the budget Congress has written. The reason we take on debt is because federal spending, set by Congress, exceeds federal tax revenues, also set by Congress. The only thing the debt ceiling does is require Congress to have what is in effect an additional vote on their own budget. Eliminating the debt ceiling doesn't give the president one iota more authority or power. What it does, however, is take away the power the Republicans now have to use blackmail to achieve their policy goals.

OK, so I was kidding when I said Mitch McConnell doesn't know how the debt ceiling works. He knows exactly how it works. But he also knows that most Americans know next to nothing about it, and he knows that reporters will dutifully pass on whatever he says about it, without adding the appropriate disclaimer that would make their reporting about this topic accurate.

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