The Disturbing Precedent for McConnell’s Debt-Ceiling BrinksmanshipRoundup
tags: debt ceiling, Senate, Mitch McConnell, Slavocracy
Lindsay M. Chervinsky is a presidential historian and a senior fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. She is the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution. Twitter: @lmchervinsky.
Earlier this week, Republicans in the Senate filibustered a bill that would have both funded the government and raised the debt ceiling. Yesterday, Democrats in Congress, with the help of just a handful of Republicans, managed to pass a stopgap measure to keep the government funded and functioning until December 3. But the debt deadline still looms. If the debt ceiling is not raised by mid-October, then, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen put it in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, “the United States of America would be unable to meet its obligations for the first time in our history.”
In refusing to raise the debt ceiling, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republicans are playing fast and loose with the nation’s economy. This is not the first time McConnell has used extreme methods to achieve his goals—Merrick Garland comes to mind—nor the first time he has used the debt ceiling as a political weapon. During the Obama years, McConnell regularly threatened to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, which would wreck the economy, unless the Obama administration acceded to his demands. After falling quiet while the Trump administration added trillions to the national debt, McConnell and the GOP have vowed to default on the national debt now that a Democrat is back in the White House. While they proclaim to be deeply concerned about fiscal conservatism, this sudden change of heart isn’t a question of political values or true economic concerns—it’s purely about power.
These tactics have a disturbing precedent in the playbook perfected by Southern congressmen before the Civil War—what some historians call “the Slavocracy.” Southerners of that era used their disproportional representation in Congress to push through official measures to defend their “way of life.” The millions of enslaved individuals inflated the population of the South, granting Southern leadership dominance in the House of Representatives. From 1801 to 1861 (from the 7th Congress through the 36th Congress), thirteen Southerners served as speaker of the House while just six Northerners did. To put the disparity even more starkly, a Southerner was speaker for nearly 80 percent of the time Congress was in session during those decades.
The twenty-first century Republican party, with McConnell in prominent leadership roles since 2003, relies on a similar voter imbalance to remain in power. Since the 1992 presidential election, Republican presidential candidates have won the popular vote exactly once, in 2004 when George W. Bush won his re-election. Today, the Senate is split with 50 Democratic senators and 50 Republican senators. However, as Ian Millhiser observed in January, the “Democratic half of the Senate” represents “41,549,808 more people than the Republican half.”