“On Beyond Zebra!” is among the Dr. Seuss books that will no longer be published, a fact many Republicans are aware of. Credit…Scott Olson/Getty Images
To Understand Why Republicans Are Divided on the Debt Ceiling, Consider Dr. Seuss
By Nate Cohn
One of my favorite polling nuggets from the first two years of Joe Biden’s presidency wasn’t about Afghanistan or inflation or classified documents.
It was about Dr. Seuss.
In early March 2021, a Morning Consult/Politico poll found that more Republicans said they had heard “a lot” about the news that the Seuss estate had decided to stop selling six books it deemed had offensive imagery than about the $1.9 trillion dollar stimulus package enacted into the law that very week.
The result was a vivid marker of how much the Republican Party had changed over the Trump era. Just a dozen years earlier, a much smaller stimulus package sparked the Tea Party movement that helped propel Republicans to a landslide victory in the 2010 midterm election. But in 2021 the right was so consumed by the purported cancellation of Dr. Seuss that it could barely muster any outrage about big government spending.
Whether issues like “On Beyond Zebra!” still arouse Republicans more than the national debt takes on renewed importance this year, as Washington seems to be hurtling toward another debt ceiling crisis. The answer will shape whether Republicans can unify around a debt ceiling fight, as they did a decade ago, or whether a fractious party will struggle to play a convincing game of chicken — with uncertain consequences.
Unfortunately, our trusty Seuss-o-meter for gauging Republican interest in fiscal policy isn’t readily available today. But heading into the year, there were very few signs that the debt had reclaimed its Obama-era position at the top of the list of conservative policy priorities.
Understand the U.S. Debt Ceiling
What is the debt ceiling? The debt ceiling, also called the debt limit, is a cap on the total amount of money that the federal government is authorized to borrow via U.S. Treasury securities, such as bills and savings bonds, to fulfill its financial obligations. Because the United States runs budget deficits, it must borrow huge sums of money to pay its bills.
The limit has been hit. What now? America hit its technical debt limit on Jan. 19. The Treasury Department will now begin using “extraordinary measures” to continue paying the government’s obligations. These measures are essentially fiscal accounting tools that curb certain government investments so that the bills continue to be paid. Those options could be exhausted by June.
What is at stake? Once the government exhausts its extraordinary measures and runs out of cash, it would be unable to issue new debt and pay its bills. The government could wind up defaulting on its debt if it is unable to make required payments to its bondholders. Such a scenario would be economically devastating and could plunge the globe into a financial crisis.
Can the government do anything to forestall disaster? There is no official playbook for what Washington can do. But options do exist. The Treasury could try to prioritize payments, such as paying bondholders first. If the United States does default on its debt, which would rattle the markets, the Federal Reserve could theoretically step in to buy some of those Treasury bonds.
Why is there a limit on U.S. borrowing? According to the Constitution, Congress must authorize borrowing. The debt limit was instituted in the early 20th century so that the Treasury would not need to ask for permission each time it had to issue debt to pay bills.
Just a few months before the Dr. Seuss controversy in January 2021, Pew Research found that only 42 percent of Americans, including 54 percent of Republicans, thought reducing the budget deficit should be a “top priority” for the president and Congress. A year later, those figures had ticked up by a few points, to 45 percent and 63 percent, but still fell well short of the Obama-era peaks of 72 percent and 82 percent.
The 2022 midterm campaign didn’t show evidence of a resurgent conservative passion for spending cuts either. The debt-deficit issue had such a low profile in the national conversation that a question about it wasn’t even asked in exit polling. The Times/Siena poll didn’t ask either, but consider that only one of 1,641 respondents in open-ended questioning said the debt, deficit or federal spending was the most important problem facing the country.
Republicans, in other words, are probably still the kind of party likelier to get worked up over cultural resentments like the fate of Dr. Seuss than fiscal policy (underlying resentments helped fuel the Tea Party, too). In this respect, a debt ceiling showdown today is no rerun of the Obama era. Republicans, who saw the Trump administration spend big, did not ride a tsunami of dissatisfaction with federal government spending into Washington in 2022, as they did in 2010. Conservative media outlets, elected officials and voters have not spent months or years unifying the party around the severity of the problem or a possible solution.
House Republicans have made it clear that they don’t want to raise the debt ceiling without extracting concessions from Democrats, but they have struggled to formulate any concrete demands — let alone get the 218 votes for such demands in a narrowly divided chamber.
As a result, the G.O.P. finds itself awkwardly divided.
Former President Donald J. Trump recently said he opposed any Republican effort to cut Social Security and Medicare, all but precluding Republicans from putting entitlement reform on the table as it did a decade ago. Many House members have said the same, while struggling to come up with any proposals for cuts.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, has tersely insisted that the U.S. won’t default on its debt, while passing the buck to the House. Meanwhile, a Republican Senate caucus bellwether, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, floated raising revenue to help pay for Social Security.
All of this could add up to a Republican Party that’s less likely to precipitate a true debt ceiling crisis. Republican demands could be smaller than they were a decade ago. They could find it easier to accept face-saving deals, like Senator Joe Manchin’s idea for a blue ribbon commission. Maybe rank-and-file Republicans won’t be as worried about appearing to undermine the Freedom Caucus when neither conservative media nor the activist base has successfully elevated the debt ceiling as a central litmus test.
But as the fight for House Speaker reminds us, a divided Republican Party can also be an aimless and listless one. It could struggle to do anything at all, and instead find itself led down the path to a crisis without any clear plan for how to get out.
And if or when the Republicans do eventually unify around something, Democrats may not take their threats as seriously as they would if it appeared to stem from deeply held beliefs, rather than the tactics of a faction.