Rep. Kevin McCarthy is sworn into office after being elected the next Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (OSV News photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters).

To understand the real priorities of today’s Republican Party, one should skip past the campaign rhetoric of last year’s midterm elections—all the performative outrage about critical race theory and transgender athletes—and focus instead on the very first thing that Republicans did, and the first thing they refused to do, once they took control of Congress in January.

The first piece of legislation the new Republican majority passed would rescind $80 billion in new funding approved last year for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), money mainly intended to help the agency audit rich tax cheats. The Congressional Budget Office has projected that the new funding will bring in over $180 billion in revenue over the next ten years—which means that the GOP bill repealing it would add $100 billion to the national debt over the same period. Immediately after trying to gut the IRS (they’re also introducing a bill to abolish it outright), congressional Republicans signaled their unwillingness raise the federal borrowing limit, or “debt ceiling,” unless President Biden agrees to major spending cuts. Together, these two moves demonstrate that, despite all the recent talk about “realignment,” the GOP remains what it has been for decades: a party designed to convert the cultural grievances of white working-class voters into low taxes for the wealthy and austerity for the poor.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking. During the Trump administration, Republicans were unconcerned about the mounting federal debt. They voted with Democrats to lift the debt ceiling three times with no demands for spending cuts in return. Indeed, between their Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (expected to add $1.5 trillion to the federal debt over a decade), their bloated defense appropriation bills, and the emergency pandemic relief of 2020, $7 trillion of new federal debt was incurred while Trump was in office. But now that a Democrat is in the White House, the Republicans have suddenly rediscovered their fiscal scruples. For purely ideological reasons, they want to shrink the federal government, especially entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. For purely partisan reasons, they want to do it while a Democrat is president so that he, and not they, will be blamed by voters for all the pain this causes. In 2011, under the last Democratic president, Republican lawmakers used the debt ceiling as leverage to secure significant cuts to federal spending. Unless President Obama agreed to their demands, they warned, the U.S. government risked defaulting on its financial obligations to creditors, with possibly catastrophic consequences for the global economy. This was extortion, plain and simple; and it seemed to work.

Whatever strategy Biden resorts to, the important thing is that he not allow the GOP’s dead-enders to blackmail him into rolling back a century’s worth of hard-won progress for the elderly, the poor, and the sick.

Members of the GOP’s “Freedom Caucus” are now hoping it works again. As part of the shady deals Kevin McCarthy cut to be elected Speaker of the House, he reportedly promised to let the Freedom Caucus replay the Republicans’ 2011 stunt. He is now asking the White House to negotiate with his party’s fiscal terrorists. So far, the Biden administration has quite properly declined the invitation: it wants a “clean” vote on raising the debt ceiling, with no strings attached. The administration points out that the federal government has an obligation to make up the difference between the spending Congress has already authorized and the taxes it has approved. That means borrowing more money. If Republicans on Capitol Hill want to borrow less, then when it comes time to pass the next budget, they should vote to cut spending, increase taxes, or both. What they mustn’t do is hold the U.S. government’s “full faith and credit” ransom in order to force massive spending cuts for which there is little support either in Congress or in the country at large. It turns out that, whatever they think about vaccine mandates or gender-neutral pronouns, voters of both parties like their Social Security.

It is unlikely but not impossible that the Freedom Caucus will take their stunt all the way to the end. In case they do, Biden needs a contingency plan. Some have argued that the Fourteenth Amendment, which states that “the validity of the public debt of the United States…shall not be questioned,” gives a president all the power he needs to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally. Others have suggested using an obscure parliamentary procedure called a “discharge petition” to force McCarthy to hold a floor vote on raising the debt ceiling, which would allow the sane members of both parties to combine forces. Still others say the president could simply instruct the Treasury Department to mint a platinum coin worth $1 trillion and deposit this with the Federal Reserve—abracadabra, problem solved. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen once called this idea a “gimmick,” and no doubt it is. But if push comes to shove, the only important question is: Would this gimmick work? Many experts say it would.

Whatever strategy Biden resorts to, the important thing is that he not allow the GOP’s dead-enders to blackmail him into rolling back a century’s worth of hard-won progress for the elderly, the poor, and the sick. If the Republicans believe they can win back the White House and a majority in both houses of Congress by promising to starve or eliminate the country’s most popular entitlement programs, they’re welcome to try. Even if they don’t win (and they won’t), they would at least have the moral satisfaction of knowing they had campaigned on what matters to them most—not the woke re-labeling of Mr. Potato Head or even the “invasion” at the border, but the preservation of private wealth.

Published in the February 2023 issue: View Contents
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