With 60 days to go until the midterm elections — and Republicans still widely expected to win control of the House of Representatives — The New York Times has a warning of sorts about what a narrow GOP majority might mean: “Kevin McCarthy, who would become speaker if Republicans retake the chamber, could face a series of headaches. But beyond him, the nation might struggle to avoid a damaging default on its debt.”
The danger of a debt default might rise, Jonathan Weisman reports, because the House Republican conference appears set to grow even more conservative, with additions such as Josh Brecheen of Oklahoma, who has pledged never to raise the federal borrowing limit, despite the enormous risk a U.S. default would represent to the global financial system.
Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus challenged previous GOP speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. “The House Republicans’ right flank forced the shutdown of much of the federal government several times, and nearly prompted a default on government debt,” Weisman notes. Now, a group of former President Donald Trump’s loyalists and far-right candidates will likely be headed to Washington, D.C. intent on similarly pressuring current leaders, both Democratic and Republican.
“[C]andidates have emerged who could revive a corps of conservatives who bedeviled past G.O.P. speakers as they tried to raise Washington’s statutory borrowing limit, keep the government funded and operating, and approve annual military and intelligence policy bills,” Weisman writes. “Such prospects seem so harrowing that one former Republican leadership aide, who insisted on anonymity, said he hoped Democratic leaders would raise the debt ceiling in the lame-duck session of Congress this winter rather than risk the first-ever default on United States government debt.”
House Republicans could also use their fiscal leverage in support of an agenda more centered on Trump election conspiracy theories and pursuit of political payback. As liberal columnist Greg Sargent of The Washington Post writes, “a MAGA-fied House will have another, underdiscussed tactic at its disposal: using its fiscal and investigative powers to try to defund or hobble any and all investigations and prosecutions involving Trump.”
Republicans, Sargent theorizes, could seek to “zero out” salaries of specific federal officials such as Attorney General Merrick Garland. “Or they could try to “nix blocks of federal employees, functionally killing specific programs.” Or they could look to defund investigations of Trump. “They could say, ‘We’ll let this whole country go into default unless you stop all these probes of Trump,’” congressional scholar Norm Ornstein told Sargent.
The bottom line: Fiscal showdowns are looking likely, though the underlying fights might be political.