Tuesday, May 31, 2011

But I'm Clean!

How should House Democrats vote on the debt ceiling increase scheduled to lose on the House floor today? Remember, not only have Republicans scheduled this vote at least in part to give them an opportunity to vote against something that eventually at least some of them will have to vote for, but they've scheduled it under the supermajority-requiring suspension procedure, I guess just to make sure it doesn't accidentally pass.

I haven't seen much reporting on what Democrats are going to do in response. It seems to me it depends on how they believe the end game will play out. If they believe that a deal will eventually be struck without too much disruption along the way, then it makes some sense for them to all vote against the clean limit increase. After all, we know that raising the debt limit polls badly, and eventually there's going to be a deal of some kind that they'll want to portray as a win, so they might as well get on board the "use the debt ceiling as leverage" bandwagon, if that's not too mixed of a metaphor.

On the other hand, if they believe that it will take a market cataclysm to get the limit raised (as Peter Orszag predicted last week), then Democrats most definitely want to pin that cataclysm on Republicans, and the best way to that is to vote yes on the clean increase today.

What about if they're not sure? Then vote yes. If a deal is reached without too much trouble, then the initial vote is probably going to be low-salience seventeen months from now, especially for those who voted yes on the deal. If, however, disaster strikes, it may well be something that Democrats want to run on in 2012. Note however it's a bit tricky; while Democratic House challengers have a strong interest in blaming incumbent Republicans for a market debacle, incumbent Democrats can't exactly accuse their challengers of failing to act (although a general preference for Democrats would obviously help them, too). It may be counterintuitive to vote for something that polls really badly for purely electoral reasons, but that's how I see it.

By the way, for those more interested in the substance of the debt limit fight, I wrote about that over at Greg's place today.


  1. If they know it's going to fail anyway the easier thing to do would be to vote against it. Before he ran for President, Obama did the same thing. Although now he says that vote was a mistake.

    But if the GOP is really concerned about spending, Boehner would make them stop the go around on pork.

  2. Polling on something as abstract as the debt ceiling is pretty meaningless.

    Try polling "Should the US honor its debts and obligations?"

    Vote for the debt increase, and during the election state forcefully that the US must pay its debts; that missing payments is not a choice a great and honorable nations can make. Say the Republicans are playing with fire.

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  4. Well the Democrats split on the vote. With every Republican present voting against the bill, it lost 97-318, with eightyish Democrats joining with the Republicans.

  5. Prof. Bernstein,

    Why did all the Senate Democrats vote against the Obama budget? Similar reasoning? And why haven't the House leadership forced House Democrats to cast a vote as well?

  6. I'm not sure a split caucus here provides Republicans with the clear contrast they want. In other words, I'm not sure it's the worst outcome for Dems. It seems to me it hedges: no party is expected to be perfectly uniform (despite Republicans' recent, slightly disturbing behavior), and the party can reasonably claim to have a significant portion of its caucus willing to stand on the principle of paying our debts no matter what, while another bloc recognizes the need to deal with the majority. Either of these positions can be demagogued (anything can be demagogued), but at the same time, they both can be defended. And as you say, this seems like an outside shot to be salient in seventeen months. I'm just not sure it's such a big deal. I agree if there's a debt crisis, it'd be better to be on record supporting avoiding that. But I don't think that upside is as big as some are suggesting it is. Perhaps I'm missing something.

  7. Michael,

    I certainly agree that anything can be demagogued, and that's a good point; I also agree it's not a big deal. On the whole, I think the party collectively would have been better off voting yes, but I definitely didn't mean to say that it was a vote that was likely to make much difference down the road -- it just struck me as the sort of vote worth puzzling out.

    I think the story on the Senate Dem vote against the Obama budget was that it was the original budget, now replaced by Budget II (which, I believe, is more of a general guideline than a real budget). So there was no real reason to vote for it.

  8. Professor,

    Yeah, I was referring more to Josh Marshall, who seems to thinks this is a big collapse for Dems. Or maybe I'm misreading him. I agree the best unified-party move would have been to vote yes, but that simply wasn't going to happen. Score a point to the GOP for demonstrating that they'll ultimately have the levergae to extract cuts, but Obama was working on a pretty thin pretense that wasn't the case already.

    But yeah, I didn't take you to arguing this was a big political event. You don't stray in tone here from your usual view that Washington machinations with big political implications are the exception not the rule.

  9. We are not broke. Get rid of the Oil and Gas Industry welfare, roll back the Bush Tax Cuts for the top 1% to Clinton era rates, and cut the Military Money Laundering Operation and we'll be just fine.

  10. Organizing & mobilizing is critical. Restore the Democratic-Republic from corporate & despotic-oligarchs that are oppressing citizens by suppressing their rights, severing just representation, access to government, & your health. For how long & to what extent would a movement require that would resolve a lifetime of indentured servitude, restore freedom, restore your rights, & end socio-economic disparity? Think of it like weathering a natural disaster but it must happen now.

  11. Republican candidates are proposing estate tax cuts, income tax cuts, capital gains tax cuts, at a time when taxes are already lower than they've been in 100 years, and we're paying half a trillion dollars a year in interest payments on the existing debt.


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