McConnell And Civic Ignorance

I know you are all tired of reading my periodic rants about Americans’ lack of civic/constitutional knowledge. But we are witnessing a perfect example of the damage caused by widespread civic ignorance, and not just on the part of citizens, but on a substantial part of the media.

Mitch McConnell–aka the most evil man in America–is refusing to allow Republican Senators to vote to raise the debt ceiling, or even for cloture–for ending his filibuster of the measure. If the ceiling isn’t raised, the United States will default on its obligations and plunge the world into a financial crisis. (I’m not the only person saying that–Janet Yellen, among others, has been making that point.)

Now, there are two things most Americans don’t understand about the current impasse over raising the debt ceiling.  First of all, a vote to raise the ceiling is not an authorization to spend money. It is an authorization to pay for spending that has already been authorized–permission to borrow the money needed to pay for things that the Congress has previously voted to do. (It’s actually a weird sort of holdover vote that could well be dispensed with, but that’s a different conversation.) So pious pronouncements about fiscal responsibility as an excuse for failing to raise the ceiling are the stuff excreted by bulls.

Second, even fewer people understand how the arcane rules of the Senate have enabled McConnell to play an anti-democratic and truly despicable  game of chicken.

You may have seen articles about the current fight in which the pundit or reporter has said that the Democrats could raise the ceiling without the GOP. That’s technically true-but so long as McConnell prolongs the filibuster, such passage would be at the cost of not passing the infrastructure bill. That’s because the only way Democrats could raise the ceiling without Republicans ending their filibuster is through reconciliation, which cannot be filibustered. But the Democrats get only one chance to pass a bill through reconciliation this year, so using that one chance to save the country from default would force them to dump the immensely popular infrastructure bill, which–thanks to McConnell and the filibuster– can also only be passed through reconciliation.

And that is McConnell’s game of chicken.

He’s counting on the Democrats to jettison their most important piece of legislation (which he continues to filibuster) in order to avert a national disaster. He is counting on the ignorance of the public–and a sizable portion of the media–to obscure the naked evil of this tactic. If–as he clearly hopes–the Democrats once again act like the adult in the room, and save us from a fiscal calamity, very few Americans will understand why the promised infrastructure bill didn’t pass; they will join the chorus of uninformed observers blaming the internal divisions of the Democrats for their inability to get the job done.

Others–including most recently President Biden– have pointed out that McConnell’s Republicans raised the debt ceiling three times under Trump –and not so incidentally added $7.8 trillion to the national debt. Anyone who thinks this current intransigence is about fiscal responsibility is smoking something really strong.

It is past time to call the bluff, eliminate the filibuster and get rid of a debt ceiling vote that only authorizes paying Uncle Sam’s bills. But those things aren’t likely to happen this month–so unless there is some Republican Senator willing to put country before party (unlikely), we are once again on the brink of being a failed state.

There is a reason Mitch McConnell is a hated man.