Our Congress has two faces: We saw the authoritarian one during the rancorous vote for House Speaker, while the other is seen in an op-ed that lauds the bipartisan collaboration that produced over 200 recommendations for making Congress work more efficiently. As news consumers and financial markets brace for another game of chicken regarding the raising of the debt ceiling, it’s clear which face is doing the talking.
The brinkmanship surrounding the debt ceiling has been a staple of the GOP’s political arsenal since Newt Gingrich served as Speaker of the House. It’s the big gun that only gets trotted out when a Democrat is in the White House; Republicans have given their own Presidents Bush and Trump a free pass to outspend revenue throughout their time in office. The threat of defaulting on the national debt has everything to do with political power and nothing to do with making real change.
That’s how this Congress works, at least with these Republicans pushing the buttons. Many are election deniers, or are complicit in the Big Lie by their silence and previous but unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. They’ve proven their willingness to discredit elections that are the bedrock of our democracy – an action once deemed unthinkable. Still, some on Capitol Hill, including Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), remain confident that a deal on the debt ceiling will be struck, because they still believe the other option – defaulting on the debt – is unthinkable.
Such a failure of the imagination is dangerous.
The consequences of default include, according to U.S. News & World Report, “a severe drop or crash in the stock market, higher interest rates for borrowers, a credit downgrade for the U.S. government along with an inability to meet its obligations from spending on the military, Social Security benefits and everyday functions like air traffic control and medical care for veterans and elderly Americans.”
With the risk of default looming as never before, the January 4 op-ed, “If We Want Congress to Work Differently, We Have to Do Things Differently” by Representatives Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and William Timmons (R-SC), is jarringly out of sync. The authors are chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, and Timmons is an unrepentant election denier. The committee, created by the Democratic-controlled House in 2019, focused on updating the structures and rules that would enable Congress to function more efficiently regardless of who is in charge. As the authors wrote, the committee recognized but did not pursue the “hard truths” of rising polarization that prevent Congress from working more effectively to solve the nation’s problems.
Nevertheless, Kilmer and Timmons boast that their success lay in “focusing on fixing problems rather than partisan position-taking”, and they express the hope that their bipartisan approach to bridge-building will catch on elsewhere in Congress. That’s a worthy aspiration that, unfortunately, sounds a bit hollow given that the problems they fixed – relating to such issues as document review and processing and access to secure wi-fi – are not the kind of pressing problems or hot button issues likely to generate partisan conflict.
Kilmer and Timmons offer no evidence that we can expect their novel approach to have much impact beyond their committee’s work. Some indication would have been nice that after four years of close collaboration they’d had some influence on the other’s thinking. But there’s no sign of any mind melding; their voting patterns remain strictly partisan. And Timmons remains an election denier.
With scores of election deniers still holding office and the Freedom Caucus setting the tone in the House, it is unlikely that Republicans in Congress will suddenly give traction to new bipartisan models for conducting their business. In spite of the committee’s efforts, Congress may be more divided and GOP representatives more dangerously authoritarian than we’ve seen to date.
Perhaps if the authors’ personal relationship and mutual aspirations had compelled Timmons to publicly recant his position on the 2020 election, their story would carry more weight. If that were the case, we might now more reasonably have hope that the divide can be bridged among those in power.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. Instead, we are left with the limits of bridge building at this crossroads in American history. Rather than hearing that Congress is responsibly negotiating to bring down the debt, we are faced with an emboldened band of authoritarians who are threatening the country with default and economic chaos for everyone.
In its assessment of the consequences of default, U.S. News & World Report left out one very important detail: the impact of such chaos on the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. History tells us that nations that are politically divided with weak or unstable economies are more prone to democratic collapse than those with stable economies.
Defending Democracy Together
If you’re a Republican politician who supported the Big Lie that there was widespread fraud in this election, if you objected to the certification of legitimate Electoral College votes, or otherwise pretended that Congress could overturn the will of the American people, you will be held accountable.
—Quoted from the Republican Accountability Project, a project of Defending Democracy Together, which was founded by lifelong conservatives and Republicans
Defending Democracy Together is concerned about the nativist and authoritarian impulses that now dominate the Republican Party. In their words: “These ideals are antithetical to what it means to be a Republican, and what it means to be American.” The organization aims “to elevate voices across the conservative political spectrum who advocate for these principles. We hope Americans on the Left, Right, and Center will join us.”
Author: George Linzer
Published: January 26, 2023
Updated: January 31, 2023
Feature image: George Linzer
John Wagner, Mariana Alfaro, “This just in: McConnell says U.S. will ‘never’ default on debt”, Washington Post, Jan 19, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2023/01/19/debt-limit-extraordinary-measures-biden-california/#link-WDMWRUMB2FEF3G2T2W2DN4VQNI, Jan 25, 2023
Tim Smart, “EXPLAINER: What Is the Debt Ceiling and Why Does It Matter?”, U.S. News & World Report, Jan 19, 2023, https://www.usnews.com/news/economy/articles/2023-01-19/explainer-what-is-the-debt-ceiling-and-why-does-it-matter, accessed Jan 23, 2023
Derek Kilmer, William Timmons, “If We Want Congress to Work Differently, We Have to Do Things Differently”, Newsweek, Jan 4, 2022, https://www.newsweek.com/if-we-want-congress-work-differently-we-have-do-things-differently-opinion-1771348, accessed Jan 19, 2023
Heritage Action for America, “Scorecard”, The Heritage Foundation, https://heritageaction.com/scorecard/members/117, accessed Jan 26, 2023 (Kilmer rated 0%; Timmons 92%)
William Timmons/@RepTimmons, tweet, Nov 10, 2020 4:23pm, https://twitter.com/RepTimmons/status/1326274235715612672, accessed Jan 24, 2023
Republican Accountability Project, “About”, Defending Democracy Together, https://accountability.gop/about/, accessed Jan 24, 2023
Defending Democracy Together, “About Us”, https://www.defendingdemocracytogether.org/about-us/, accessed Jan 25, 2023
LegBranch.org, “Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress”, https://www.legbranch.org/research-2/select-committee-on-the-modernization-of-congress/, accessed Jan 23, 2023
Abraham Diskin, Hanna Diskin, Reuven Y. Hazan, “Why Democracies Collapse: The Reasons for Democratic Failure and Success”, International Political Science Review (2005), Vol 26, No. 3, 291–309, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0192512105053787, accessed Jan 27, 2023