Combining Disaster Relief With the Debt Ceiling is a No-Brainer

In theory, at least, Hurricane Harvey could be a blessing in disguise for the Republican leadership in Congress. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had a very full plate of must-do legislation to pass well before the hurricane made landfall in southeast Texas. They’d like to avoid a government shutdown, if possible, but their greatest concern is that they find a way to raise the debt ceiling before the Treasury Department runs out of ways to juggle our bills and defaults on our sovereign debt.

While no member of Congress really wants to cast a vote to authorize more government borrowing, virtually no member of Congress wants to vote against disaster relief for Houston and its surrounding environs. If the Republican leadership were to combine the two bills into one, they’d have an easier time getting the votes they need to raise the debt ceiling.

However, the Freedom Caucus wants no part of this solution.

The chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus says aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey should not be part of a vehicle to raise the debt ceiling.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), an ally of President Trump who leads the conservative caucus, said disaster aid should pass on its own, apart from separate measures the government must pick up in September to raise the nation’s borrowing limit and fund the government.

“The Harvey relief would pass on its own, and to use that as a vehicle to get people to vote for a debt ceiling is not appropriate,” he said an interview with The Washington Post, signaling agreement with Trump on the approach.

It would “send the wrong message” to add $15 to $20 billion of spending while increasing the debt ceiling, Meadows added.

Rep. Meadows appears to be optimistic about the cost of recovery from the flooding in Texas and Louisiana. As USA Today reported today, the private weather firm Accuweather estimates that the bill from Hurricane Harvey could be $160 billion. Even if that is way too high, a number in the $15-20 billion range is probably far too low.

Either way, part of the problem is that the Freedom Caucus wants to have a fight on the debt ceiling and they want to be free to wage their battle without looking heartless about the victims of the storm. In truth, though, the leadership probably isn’t counting on their votes. And if Ryan and McConnell want to pass a bill with offsets or side amendments as the Freedom Caucus is demanding, they cannot rely on the House Democrats to help them. They’d need nearly all of the Freedom Caucus to vote with them and then figure out how to pull off a miracle and win the support of eight Democrats in the Senate.

Combining the bills would make these scenarios easier to accomplish. Democrats don’t want to vote against disaster relief, either, and they’d love a chance to soften a vote for raising the debt ceiling. To have any chance to get some Democratic senators to vote for an “unclean” debt ceiling bill, the Republican leadership would have to link it hurricane recovery.

I think it would be legislative malpractice for Ryan and McConnell to fail to take advantage of the opportunity presented here. I’ve been saying for months that they were headed for a complete crack-up in September, and this could offer them a way out. At least in theory, it might give them a chance to break the Democrats’ unified wall of resistance in the Senate while also holding their caucus together in the House.

On the other hand, if they ask for something in the neighborhood of $160 billion for emergency supplemental spending and then try to pass a clean debt ceiling bill, I can’t see that ending well for them.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.