The Debt Limit Bill: Yet Another Triumph for Bipartisanship

Democrats and Republicans have previously joined hands to support the invasion of Iraq, huge corporate tax cuts, and more.

The US Capitol in Washington, DC, US, on Friday, June 2, 2023. The Senate passed legislation to suspend the US debt ceiling and impose restraints on government spending through the 2024 election, ending a drama that threatened a global financial crisis. Photographer: Nathan Howard/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on June 2, 2023.

Photo: Nathan Howard/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This weekend, President Joe Biden is expected to sign a bill raising the federal debt limit for approximately two years. It passed the House 314-117, with 149 of the yes votes coming from Republicans and 165 from Democrats. The bill passed the Senate 63-36. Forty-four Democratic senators voted for it, along with 17 Republicans and two independents.

The New York Times concludes that, compared with previous Congressional Budget Office forecasts, it will cut federal spending by $55 billion in 2024 and $81 billion in 2025. Moody’s Analytics estimates that, thanks to the bill, there will be 120,000 fewer jobs at the end of 2024 than there would be without it. According to the CBO, cuts to Internal Revenue Service enforcement will lead to tax revenues falling to the degree that it will actually increase the deficit on net, thereby accomplishing the exact opposite of the bill’s purported aim.

All this — plus the fact that the Biden administration is rewarding the GOP for taking the world economy hostage, thereby guaranteeing Republicans will do it again as soon as possible — is the bad news. The good news here is that it’s bipartisan!

Why didn’t the Democrats raise the debt limit without spending cuts during the lame duck period after the 2022 midterms, when they still controlled the House and Senate? They may not have had the votes, but we’ll never know because they didn’t even attempt it. As Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer explained at the time, “The best way to get it done — the way it’s been done the last two or three times — is bipartisan.”

Then, when the debt limit bill passed the House with the cuts, a White House statement celebrated that the vote was “bipartisan” in the headline and then mentioned it two more times in three paragraphs of text. 

This posturing makes sense, since Americans constantly say we love the concept of bipartisanship. A 2021 CNN poll found that 87 percent of us feel attempts at bipartisanship in Congress are a good thing. This includes 92 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans, thereby making this sentiment about bipartisanship itself bipartisan.

So now’s a good time to look back at some of the other great bipartisan achievements of the past few decades. An optimist will see these as all-too-rare occasions when Democrats and Republicans put their differences aside, reached across the aisle, and worked together to get things done. A realist may suspect these are examples of both Democrats and Republicans wanting to screw regular people in service of their donors, and only having the courage to do it because the other side was willing to hold their hand and jump with them — so neither party could be blamed. 

The Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000

In the last days of the Clinton administration, the House passed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act 292-60. One hundred and fifty-seven Democrats voted for it, together with 133 Republicans. The Senate passed it under unanimous consent.

By exempting many financial instruments from regulation, this extremely bipartisan bill helped lay the groundwork for the 2008 financial meltdown and the subsequent near-depression. In 2013, Bill Clinton privately spoke about his desperate attempts to stop the act from passing. This was all lies: His administration had enthusiastically lobbied for it.

2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force

Public Law 107-40, signed on September 18, 2001, by President George W. Bush, is certainly the most bipartisan act of the 21st century. The bill gave Bush the authorization “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” Every Democrat and Republican voting said yes to it with the solitary exception of Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California.

The executive branch predictably seized this power to go hog wild. The 2001 AUMF has been used as justification by Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump for military action in 12 countries including Afghanistan, plus drone strikes and regular bombing in seven. 

About 3,000 people died on September 11, 2001. All in all, the war on terror is estimated to have caused 4.5 million deaths, a ratio of 1,500 to 1.

Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002

Two hundred and fifteen Republicans and 81 Democrats voted in October 2002 to give Bush the power to invade Iraq. In the Senate, 48 Republicans and 29 Democrats voted yes.

Bush fired Larry Lindsey, the director of his National Economic Council, for saying the U.S. might have to spend as much as much as $200 billion on the war. It will eventually cost America at least $2.4 trillion.

American Jobs Creation Act of 2004

In October 2004, Congress passed a bill including a corporate tax holiday — i.e., an opportunity for multinational U.S. companies that had been holding cash overseas (so it couldn’t be taxed) to bring that cash back to America at an ultra-low tax rate. It was totally bipartisan, with 207 Republicans and 73 Democrats voting for it in the House, plus 44 Republicans and 25 Democrats voting yes in the Senate.

The rationale for the bill, as is clear from its name, was that this was going to create tons of great American jobs. In reality, lots of the money (from this and other Bush tax cuts) went to bigger paychecks for corporate executives. Meanwhile, the prime beneficiaries of the bill actually cut their U.S. payroll. Bill Clinton later said that Bush “got so mad that he signed the five and three-quarter percent repatriation bill and, he said, none of it was reinvested.”

Budget Control Act of 2011

The GOP previously used the debt limit to take the economy hostage in 2011, after taking back control of Congress during the 2010 midterms during Obama’s first administration. The crisis was resolved by the passage of the Budget Control Act, with 174 Republicans and 95 Democrats voting for it in the House. In the Senate, more Democrats (47) voted yes than Republicans (27). 

With the economy still reeling from the quasi-depression of 2007 to 2009, the $1 trillion-plus in cuts to discretionary spending mandated by the Budget Control Act kept the economy weak and millions of Americans desperate for years to come. The Budget Control Act and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act each deserve a kind of half-sack for the presidency of Donald Trump.

So there you have it: five triumphs of bipartisanship. Depending on how you calculate it, together these alone have cost the U.S. perhaps $15 trillion, in addition to causing an incalculable amount of human suffering, here and overseas. The debt limit bill can’t hope to be in this league, of course. But there’s always more bipartisanship to come tomorrow.

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