The Hidden History of the Debt Limit Hijack: Democrats Started It

By: David Dayen, Firedog Lake

Monday August 1, 2011 1:26 pm

I have a piece in the American Prospect today on five turning points in the debt limit fight. I think they’re actually in descending order of importance, and the biggest one is right at the top – this deal is the function of horrible economic stewardship in 2009 and 2010.

There is one turning point I, because of space constraints, did not include in there. That happened at the end of 2009, when Evan Bayh, Kent Conrad, Dianne Feinstein, Mark Warner and Joe Lieberman threatened to not increase the debt limit if they didn’t get in place a fiscal commission that would recommend spending and entitlement cuts. That’s right, Democrats started the hijacking of the debt limit. Barely anybody remembers this, but it set the stage for the deal being voted on today.

For the first time, perhaps in history, members of Congress tied spending cuts to raising the debt limit. This was the blueprint off of which John Boehner and the Republicans worked. The panel that Conrad wanted, along with Judd Gregg, would have had a mandate to reduce the deficit through spending caps, tax reform and entitlements, and would have submitted recommendations for an up-or-down vote without amendments or the possibility of the filibuster. That’s EXACTLY what’s in the bill being voted on today.

At this point, President Obama, who had pivoted onto deficit reduction at the end of 2009, said he would by executive order put together the deficit commission. And so the original Catfood Commission was born. They’ve been talking about deficits in Washington, in the middle of a jobs crisis, ever since.

The President could have stepped in at any time and shut that down. He could have told Conrad or Bayh to shut up and follow his lead. But this assumes that the President was against the whole idea of deficit reduction in the first place. We know he was not. In fact, all of these alternative solutions have to assume an actor in the White House who wanted to see a clean debt limit increase. It’s important for the public to know there were alternative, pushed by liberals and progressives, to what we see coming to pass today. But it’s just as important to recognize that nobody currently in power wanted to pursue them.


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