Shut me up if you've heard it before: Two years after a Democratic president took office and pushed ambitious policies in Congress, Republicans have regained control of the House of Representatives.
They don't have the votes to overturn the president's gains, but a quirk of US law—which requires a second congressional vote to authorize borrowing resulting from spending and tax legislation already passed—seems to give them an opportunity to blackmail and threaten to cause a financial crisis if their demands are not met.
However, they have not actually heard it before.
It is true that there are some similarities with the debt ceiling crisis of 2011, but there are also huge differences.
Elite opinion has changed.
The obsession with debt that gripped the very serious people a dozen or so years ago has disappeared.
The Democrats also seem to be made of a tougher paste and much more determined to resist extortion.
But the most important difference is that, this time, the Republicans are not making coherent demands.
It is not at all clear what, if anything, they want in exchange for not blowing up the economy.
Right now, they are blackmailers without cause.
Some of the reports I've seen on debt relief say that Republicans can't agree on what spending should be cut.
This could give the impression that there are factions in the Republican Party with different priorities.
But as far as I know, no influential member is proposing anything that would significantly bite into the budget deficit, let alone get the balanced budget that Kevin McCarthy promised as part of the deal that made him Speaker of the House.
As always, the bottom line in budgeting is that the federal government is basically an insurance company with an army.
Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the military dominate spending, and it's impossible to do much about deficits unless you raise taxes—which is clearly not in the GOP script—or cut taxes. important in those games.
In the past, Republicans have tried to make changes to the programs that make up the safety net that, for practical purposes, would have amounted to deep cuts.
George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security.
His party came close to reaching an agreement with President Barack Obama that would have lowered Social Security's cost-of-living adjustments and raised the age of Medicare access.
In 2017, Paul Ryan, then the Speaker of the House of Representatives, declared that he had “dreamed” of cutting Medicaid since his college days.
But the Republican Party has grown much more cautious.
McCarthy has already declared that cuts to Social Security and Medicare are "not on the table."
If his party ever decides to make concrete proposals, he will find that Medicaid, which still covers more Americans than Medicare, is also enormously popular, even among Republicans.
Political caution isn't the only reason Republican leaders have grown reluctant to attack the safety net, either.
The party's rank and file have also lost interest in spending cuts and turned their attention to the culture wars.
As Nate Cohn recently noted, by early 2021 many more Republicans were reporting hearing of the decision to stop publishing some of the children's books
that about the $1.9 trillion in Joe Biden's spending bill.
Inevitably, there are Republicans who try to make the budget a matter of culture war, claiming that vast sums could be saved by eliminating woke spending
(against inequalities based on race, gender or sexual orientation).
But what expense are they talking about?
I've tried to find examples of federal outlays that conservatives consider to fall into that category, keeping in mind that foundations and right-wing politicians have strong incentives to find outrageous-sounding big items.
The truth is that the results of my search were embarrassing.
For example, the expenses listed in a Heritage Foundation report that railed against “funding for the conscientious” totaled $19 million, less than the federal government spends every two minutes.
So the bottom line on the debt crisis is that there is no bottom line: Republicans denounce excess spending, but they don't know what spending they want to cut.
Even if the Democrats were willing to give in to extortion, which they are not, you can't pay a blackmailer who doesn't ask for anything concrete.
Unfortunately, the hollowness of the Republican fiscal stance is no guarantee that we will avoid a debt crisis.
If anything, you can make it more likely to happen.
— the land of
Make America Great Again
— political ideas may be in short supply, but nihilism abounds.
Republicans don't know what policies they want, but what they certainly want is to see Biden fail.
So far, the government's strategy appears to be to lure Republicans out of hiding, force them to propose concrete spending cuts, and then watch them back down in the face of public outrage.
There are also, I suppose and hope, contingency plans to avoid the crisis if this strategy fails.
But it's hard not to worry.
For a political party to be willing to set everything on fire if it doesn't get its way is dangerous;
and it is even more dangerous when the only thing that party wants is to see how everything burns.
Paul Krugman is a Nobel Prize Winner in Economics.
© The New York Times, 2023. Translation from News Clips
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