May 1, 2023

Republicans pass debt ceiling bill.

Republicans pass debt ceiling bill.
House Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) pulled together his first big win. Photo: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Olivia G. Ortiz

Plus, why don't I take Marianne Williamson seriously?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 10 minutes.

Today, we're covering the Republican bill to raise the debt ceiling. Plus, a question about why I don't think Marianne Williamson is a serious candidate. 

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Quick hits.

  1. U.S. regulators took over First Republic Bank and sold the majority of its deposits and assets to JPMorgan, marking the second-largest bank failure in U.S. history. (The sale)
  2. There is a widening manhunt for a Texas gunman who fatally shot five of his neighbors and took off on foot into the woods. (The search)
  3. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) said he will run for Sen. Joe Manchin's (D) seat in 2024. (The announcement)
  4. Russian bombers launched two dozen cruise missiles at Ukrainian cities, killing at least 25 people and injuring dozens more, marking the largest airstrikes in a month. Meanwhile, Ukraine reportedly struck a Russian oil depot in Crimea. (The strikes)
  5. North Carolina's Supreme Court handed the GOP a major victory by throwing out previous rulings against gerrymandered voting maps and upholding a photo identification voter law. (The ruling)

Today's topic.

The debt ceiling. On Wednesday, House Republicans narrowly passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling to $31.4 trillion while cutting spending and rolling back key parts of President Biden's agenda. The bill, dubbed the “Limit, Save, Grow Act of 2023,” passed by a 217-215 vote and has no chance of becoming law in the Democratically-controlled Senate. Instead, it is designed to force Biden to negotiate over spending reductions or face a potential default on the nation's debt, as he wants to raise the debt ceiling with no conditions attached.

Reminder: The debt ceiling is the legal limit on how much debt the federal government can incur. It was established in 1917, during World War I, to improve our flexibility to borrow money. Before that, Congress had to approve every issuance of debt with separate legislation. Because the U.S. regularly spends more than it collects in revenue, Congress has typically raised the debt ceiling every time it has reached it, rather than cut spending.

If the government hits the debt ceiling and fails to pay interest payments to bondholders, then it could fall into default; which would lower our national credit rating, increase the cost of our debt, and potentially set off a global economic crisis. The U.S. hit the debt limit in January but has been using extraordinary financial measures to avoid breaching it.

We explained the debt ceiling in full a previous edition:

The debt ceiling, explained.
Plus, a question about Democrats and immigration.

The bill was a major win for new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who had little wiggle room on the bill and had promised to force Biden to the table on the debt ceiling. Inside the bill is a measure to freeze spending at last year's levels for a decade, which would amount to a 14% cut. It would also roll back parts of Biden's health, climate and tax bill; create work requirements for social programs like food stamps and Medicaid; and expand fossil fuel production.

Biden has threatened to veto the bill and Republicans have little hope of passing it in the Democratically controlled Senate. However, the vote was viewed as the first step to get negotiations with Biden started on the debt ceiling. Republicans are trying to prevent Biden from a clean debt ceiling increase.

"I will meet with McCarthy, but not on whether or not the debt limit gets extended," Biden said at a news conference shortly after the bill was passed. "That’s not negotiable."

Today, we’re going to take a look at some arguments about what this bill means from the right and left, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right praise the bill, and criticize Biden for refusing to engage on it.
  • Some argue this has disarmed Democrats’ talking point that Republicans are holding the debt ceiling hostage.
  • Others say it's time for Democrats to do their job and negotiate.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said  House Republicans passed a bill to raise the federal debt ceiling, but Biden is "behaving as if it never happened."

"This means he’s now the Beltway actor toying with default on the national debt," the board said. "The House has done its duty to prevent a government default. Now it’s up to the Senate, and Mr. Biden could help by mediating a bipartisan compromise that can get the 60 necessary votes." Instead, Biden doesn't seem to understand the leverage has changed. Sen. Chuck Schumer "needs at least nine GOP votes" to pass a debt limit increase, but won't "get those votes for free."

"What part of divided government and bicameral legislature doesn’t the President understand? Perhaps he’s still under the illusion that he can refuse to negotiate and cause Republicans to panic as the debt deadline looms. No doubt the press corps will try to give him cover," the board said. "Mr. Biden’s refusal even to meet is weird given his long record as a politician willing to talk to the opposition," and if he refuses to work with Republicans "he'll be responsible for the financial calamity he's been warning about."

Also in The Wall Street Journal, Kimberly A. Strassel said McCarthy "blew up President Biden's entire operating assumption."

"Democrats aren’t the only game in town after all," Strassel said. "The Biden bet was that Mr. McCarthy would never unify his caucus around a package of spending reductions and that Democrats would continue dictating policy—including a ‘clean’ debt-ceiling increase. He lost that bet." Republicans re-learned one of Washington's oldest truths: "Unity is strength." Now, "there is only one bill" to raise the debt ceiling, and pressure is rising on Biden.

"House Democrats are already calling for him to sit down with Mr. McCarthy; the press is asking why he won’t; Wall Street will weigh in the closer we creep to the date Treasury claims it can’t pay the bills," she said. It also helps that the bill is "eminently reasonable." It focuses on "spending reductions, avoiding the urge to use the legislation for more hot-button priorities like tax cuts. And the provisions they chose have broad public appeal... Average Americans don’t see a problem with returning spending levels to those of two years ago, or clawing back money for a pandemic that is long over, or asking childless able-bodied adults to work a few hours in return for welfare. Especially in light of $31 trillion in debt."

In The Federalist, Christopher Jacobs railed against the conventional wisdom that McCarthy's bill is "meaningless" because it is "dead on arrival."

"As with many things in Washington, the corporate media’s conventional wisdom is wrong," he wrote. "Democrats continue to decry supposed Republican 'hostage taking,'" alleging conservatives will "ruin the country's full faith and credit." Ignore the "not-insignificant question of whether the Treasury Department can prioritize government payments" to prevent a default, the Democratic argument "rests on the premise Republican lawmakers would never vote to raise the debt limit.

"But last week's vote revealed that wasn't the case. Numerous conservatives who "had never supported legislation that raised the debt limit" voted with McCarthy. "Democrats can’t claim conservatives amount to legislative nihilists who can’t get to 'yes' on an issue. Instead, they don’t like the fact that Republicans said 'yes' to raising the debt limit and 'yes' to reforming federal spending," he wrote. Now Democrats need to get in the room and negotiate — "It’s called 'legislating' — Congress actually doing its job."

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left criticize the bill as "political theater" and argue it is meaningless posturing.
  • Some say Biden is right to refuse to negotiate, based on what happened in 2011.
  • Others fear the dynamics this bill creates by pitting "extreme" Republicans against the president.

The Washington Post editorial board said House Republicans actually appear willing to "allow the nation to default for the first time in its history."

"The bill is political theater. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his colleagues agreed to lift the debt ceiling to March 2024 — the middle of an election year — in exchange for sharp spending cuts and a slew of other GOP policy favorites, including clawing back IRS funding, putting more work requirements on welfare programs and rolling back green energy initiatives," the board said. "In other words, House Republicans are saying that if Democrats give in on the majority of the GOP’s pet priorities, they will agree to lift the debt ceiling only until right before the next presidential election, when no one in Washington will want to compromise on another increase. This is recklessly unrealistic."

In an ideal world, Republicans would "lift the debt limit" without "exacting a ransom" given that this is "about paying the money that Congress — in a largely bipartisan fashion — already committed to spend." It's true that the nation "is on a fiscally unsustainable course," but "holding the debt limit hostage" will only backfire.

Also in The Washington Post, Catherine Rampell said Biden "learned his lesson" from the last debt ceiling standoff in 2011.

A debate on the nation's fiscal issues would be worthwhile, but "preferably this debate wouldn’t happen under the threat of blowing up the global financial system," Rampell wrote. "The problem is that Republicans have pledged to reduce debt but have ruled out virtually every mathematical path for doing so. They refuse to raise taxes — but cannot agree on what spending programs to cut, or by how much. Which is not super surprising: Almost every program is backed by a constituency that would object to its being cut. That’s how we ended up with long-term fiscal challenges in the first place."

This is why McCarthy proposes "across-the-board funding cuts without detailing what gets targeted." McCarthy has cited the 2011 debt stand-off to say Biden is unreasonable for refusing to negotiate, but "that episode should teach Democrats that repeating the same negotiations and resolutions would be exactly the wrong course of action." The short-term consequences were a "downgrading of the nation's debt, for the first time in history," and the long-term consequences were "years of fighting, more hostage taking, government shutdowns, and general chaos."

In The New Yorker, Jonathan Blitzer argued that McCarthy is pitting his most extreme members against the president.

"Their bill would include strict work requirements for Medicaid and food stamps, major slashes to discretionary spending, and the elimination of unused pandemic aid," he wrote. "In exchange for some hundred and thirty billion dollars in cuts to next year’s budget, the Republicans would agree to raise the debt ceiling until March, 2024."  Yet the Freedom Caucus's demands "kept mounting," and eventually the bill "turned into an attack on the Inflation Reduction Act," Biden's crowning legislative achievement.

This bill would "gut the I.R.A.’s green-energy tax incentives, endangering at least a hundred thousand jobs, the vast majority of which were bound for Republican districts." McCarthy had to pare back some parts of the bill because of members' objections, “but the crux of it remained intact.” This current course "is much more worrisome" than the showdown of 2011, because the "Republican majority is far slimmer than it was in 2011, meaning the extremists have more sway."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. You can also leave a comment.

  • Republicans' position is more defensible now than it was before, when they were essentially refusing to pay the nation's credit card bill.
  • Still, this bill doesn't actually define where spending cuts would come, which makes it hard to take seriously.
  • We absolutely need to pay our debt, and we also need to reform and cut our spending.

First and foremost, I'm still quite confident that Republicans and Democrats are going to strike a deal for something close to a clean raise of the debt ceiling. History suggests the forces that be are going to push them there, even though this particular episode definitely seems more uncertain than past shakedowns.

So much of the commentary around this has been about the "surprising" victory of McCarthy to rally together 217 votes, but I think not enough has been said about the deep divisions within the Republican caucus it revealed. Most of the Capitol Hill journalists reporting on this episode suggested McCarthy had to promise his colleagues they could ignore what was inside the bill since it won't ever become law. Instead, he got to this vote — where he lost the most members possible without the vote failing — by promising the symbolism of the bill itself was a win. Even then, public infighting and late demands from the so-called "Five Families" that make up the Republican House continued until the last minute.

As I wrote in our previous coverage of the debt ceiling, I think the best analogy here is that Republicans have been essentially refusing to pay a credit card bill, not actually budgeting better future spending in the first place. Now that this bill has passed, that analogy changes. They have offered a new budget — albeit a vague and kind of unserious one — and that budget deserves a meaningful response. Just as Biden called out Republicans for not having an answer to his fiscal budget, Republicans can call out Biden for not having an answer to their debt ceiling legislation.

Two seemingly opposing issues are simultaneously true: First, we absolutely need to meet our debt obligations, or else we will face a serious economic catastrophe. Whether we actually default on our debt is almost beside the point — the legitimate threat of a default, the downgrading of our credit rating, and/or the push from other countries to turn away from the U.S. dollar would all be damaging enough.

Second, we do need to reform our spending. I know it isn't a sexy talking point and some liberals seem more and more keen on accepting the idea that we can just keep spending however we want, but the debt does matter, and we are on a fiscally unsustainable path. Reforming Social Security and Medicare costs is an absolute necessity. So too is addressing our military spending, which now amounts to more than the next 10 countries on earth combined, is absurdly wasteful, and cannot continue on the way it’s going. Each of these ideas is very unpopular with either the left or right (or both), but cutting some from all of the above — paired with the always unpopular tax increases or increased tax enforcement — seems like the only way out of the mess we are in.

This is not how I think budget cuts and reforms should happen, but it’s apparently the only way to get everyone’s attention. Republicans may extract some compromise on permitting reform or modest caps on future spending, and that'd be a much preferable outcome to whatever we are barreling towards right now.

House Republicans deserve credit for firing the starting gun in negotiations, but they'll need to be a lot more specific about where their $3 trillion of cuts are going to come from if they want to be taken seriously. In the meantime, it's May 1, and economists estimate we’ll confront our "fiscal cliff" sometime in July. That means Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) need to pick up the phone and do their jobs.

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Your questions, answered.

Q: I'm writing in to ask about why you think that Marianne Williamson is not a viable candidate? Everything I've seen from her so far seems to be inspiring and well thought out. Aside from a few public flubs, she seems to be able to appeal to a lot of people sitting in the middle, ideally those people who ended up voting for Trump based on his promises to clean up Washington from corruption. She seems to be the Democratic version of this idea, and she doesn't have a long questionable past of corrupt-adjacent acts to back it up (unlike the other guy).

— Dave from Austin, Texas

Tangle: My answer here is really quite simple: She isn't qualified. She isn't close to qualified. This isn’t an entry-level position, it’s probably the hardest job in the world.

If I'm totally honest, I think Williamson's presidential aspirations are about raising her public profile, and I think if you take a look at her career arc you'll see someone who has floated between various interests and mostly been not very successful at any of them (besides being an author). She's best known as a writer, having published 14 books, including some best sellers, but aside from briefly leading a church as a pastor she has zero experience successfully leading any organizations, government bodies, or anything else. Her few major bullet points as a co-founder or leader of cause-based organizations seemed beset by chaos and poor organization.

I know it is kind of in-vogue to run for president these days, and Trump made it seem as if any old outsider could step into the fray, but running the most powerful country in the history of the planet should be reserved for serious people with serious experience, deep understanding of government and clear qualifications to oversee nuclear weapons and the bureaucracy of a few million employees. Do you honestly think Williamson has that? I don't.

I'm certainly not opposed to outside or anti-establishment candidates, in fact I welcome them. I think business leaders or tech innovators or activists with a storied history of leadership and organization can and should run and be taken seriously. But I don't see anything on Williamson's resume or in her experience that makes me think her presidency would be anything but chaos. Even in her few failed attempts to run for office, what we’ve heard from her staffers is an ugly picture of disarray.

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Under the radar.

Colorado's Governor Jared Polis (D) signed four pieces of gun control legislation last week, marking one of the largest government responses yet to gun violence. Colorado in particular has been home to several high profile mass shootings. One bill expands the state's existing red flag laws to allow educators, attorneys and health professionals to request the seizure of someone's firearms. The other bills raise the minimum age to buy guns from 18 to 21, impose a three-day waiting period on the purchase of guns, and make it easier to sue gun and ammunition manufacturers. (The bills)


  • $31.7 trillion. The total U.S. debt, as of Monday morning.
  • $25.46 trillion. The U.S. gross domestic product in 2022.
  • 57%. The percentage of Americans who said reducing the federal deficit should be a top priority of Congress, according to a February Pew survey.
  • 45%. The percentage of Americans who said it should be a top priority a year ago.
  • 27%. The percentage of voters under 30 who voted in last year's midterms, the second highest in three decades.
  • 59%. The percentage of Americans who said they oppose the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, according to an NPR/PBS/Marist poll.

The extras.

Have a nice day.

An eclectic new study on parrots has found that the domesticated birds really seem to benefit from (and enjoy) video calls with other parrots. Researchers helped pair together domesticated parrots on video calls, teaching them how to dial up and chat with each other, and then watched in awe as the birds showed off their toys, learned new skills, sang, and chatted away with each other. The parrots even formed strong friendships with specific birds, picking certain birds to call on a regular basis from a list of over 100 options. In the wild, parrots move in flocks, but many in U.S. homes live alone, and the calls were a fun new way to give them the social connections they apparently crave. Smithsonian has the story.

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