Capitol building
Credit: Erick Drost/Flickr

I can understand this sentiment and I might have agreed with it ten years ago. I can’t agree with it today.

It’s the job of the majority party in Congress to pass appropriations and it’s their job to pass any hike in the debt ceiling. Period. End of story. If the government shuts down, it’s 100 percent the majority’s fault. If we default on our loans and damage our credit rating and cause a global recession, that’s 100 percent the majority’s fault, too.

This is always true, but it’s especially true when the majority in Congress is controlled by the same party that is sitting in the Oval Office. Strictly speaking, the minority party is not responsible for anything and should never be asked to provide votes for anything unless they are going to get something out of it.

During the Obama years, the minority Democrats provided most of the votes for lifting the debt ceiling and they did it despite asking in vain for clean votes that didn’t advance Republican priorities. They did this because they wanted to protect the president who they knew would take most of the blame if the global economy blew up. But they don’t have a president to protect anymore and it’s up to the Republicans to do the responsible thing.

If they can ram home a debt ceiling hike with 100 percent their own votes, then they can cram whatever they want into the bill. If they need Democratic votes, then this time it’s the Democrats who need to see their priorities addressed.

This idea that the Democrats have to step in to prevent Republican dysfunction from blowing up the world is simple enabling. If the Republicans come to the Democrats with a completely clean bill to raise the debt ceiling, the Democrats will have to consider it. But they shouldn’t leap at the offer. They should at least initially refuse to give the Republicans what they refused to grant them.

The number one reason for this is because a failure to meet tit for tat here creates a disparity in outcomes that favors hostage taking and irresponsible governance.  The number two reason is that you shouldn’t start out with your bottom line. As a negotiating tactic, you want to ask for more than you’re willing to settle for, and you also want to provide a way for the Republicans to save some face so they can make a concession without seeming to get nothing.

The Democrats should offer no votes to hike the debt ceiling unless certain of their desires are met. This will help the Republican leadership convince their most recalcitrant debt hawks that they’ll default if they don’t offer at least a clean bill.  If the Republican leadership can’t come close to accomplishing this, they’ll need to make concessions. If they can come close, maybe the Dems can relent and offer the few votes they need for a clean bill.

The Democrats do need to be responsible in the end, but it’s not responsible to keep negotiating from an artificial position of weakness that just encourages bad behavior and a lack of reality-based thinking in their political opponents. If the Republican leadership proves itself truly helpless, then the Democrats should take their bounty in concessions. If they try hard and come up just short, they should get bailed out to avoid an international calamity, but no concessions should be made on the Democrats’ part.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at