Skip to main content

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walks to the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Washington on Oct. 5.T.J. Kirkpatrick/The New York Times News Service

When people say it isn’t about the sex, they’re wrong. It is about the sex. When they say it isn’t about the money, they’re also wrong. It is about the money. But when they say the current wrangle in Washington isn’t about the debt ceiling, they’re actually right.

The imbroglio that is holding Capitol Hill hostage isn’t about the debt ceiling – which limits the American government from borrowing but also restricts Washington from managing the economy – at all.

U.S. President Joe Biden may say his Republican revivals are “reckless” and that the full faith and credit of the country is at stake if Congress doesn’t take the arcane – and, in any context but the follies of the American government, thoroughly unnecessary – step of boosting the amount of debt that the United States can incur. But he’s not only talking about American arrears.

Biden tells Republican senators to ‘get out of the way’ on debt limit

He’s also talking about his own political preferences, his own political prospects and his own presidency. And the lawmakers, Republicans right now but in earlier cases Democrats as well, are acting out of concern for their own political preferences, their own political prospects and, ultimately, the identity of the political figure who occupies the presidency in the future.

The United States is the only country in the industrialized world with this problem, which had its origins in early American history when Congress exerted its right to restrict federal debt. The modern mechanism traces its roots to more than a century ago, when in 1917 Congress passed the Second Liberty Bond Act that helped finance American involvement in the First World War, but that also included provisions regulating the country’s debt.

The contemporary result is that three principal players in today’s Washington have inserted deadly bullets into the complex game of political roulette they are playing in the foreground of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s warning that the government will exhaust its cash reserves by Oct. 18. They are:

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky

He is using the lever of the debt ceiling to embarrass and discomfort his Democratic rivals. He knows, for example, that the debt was built by both Republican and Democratic congresses and presidents. He knows, too, that the debt ceiling must be raised eventually. He just doesn’t want the Republicans to play any part in doing so, subliminally saying to his rivals: Since you think you can govern without us, go ahead and do so.

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer

The New York Democrat knows that some of his party members supported raising the debt ceiling when Donald Trump was president. He also knows how complicated it would be to raise the debt ceiling without GOP votes: Senate rules require the assent of 60 lawmakers to move to a vote and the Democrats only have 50 in the chamber, and maybe not even that many will side with Mr. Schumer on this. So he is betting that some Republicans, feeling a sense of duty and mortified by the paralysis of the Senate, will blink and join him.

Mr. Biden

He knows that he is the responsible officer of the government and cannot risk an economic catastrophe on his watch. So although he considers himself the magus of the legislative process, and because he knows he voted against raising the debt ceiling as a senator in 2006, he is playing the responsibility card. “Raising the debt limit comes down to paying what we already owe, what has already been acquired – not anything new,” he said this week. “It starts with a simple truth: The United States is a nation that pays its bills and always has. From its inception, we have never defaulted.”

The country likely won’t default this time, either, but the peril is greater than it has been in the past, as the positions of the three major actors in the drama seem cast in cement.

“In each case you have a strategy and an incentive and potential dire consequences,” said L. Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Colby College in Waterville, Me. “The Senate has never gotten to this point of acrimony – and has never been so dysfunctional.”

And yet the unspoken but unavoidable truth is that everyone involved in this struggle knows that the Congress eventually will raise the debt ceiling. It always does. Sometimes it requires an 11th-hour act, sometimes it requires a government shutdown, sometimes it prompts a brief but never an enduring economic crisis, though during Barack Obama’s administration it came close.

But it always happens. Indeed, Congress has raised the debt ceiling more than 20 times in this century alone, sometimes as a matter of routine legislation (though accompanied by harrumphs of indignation from those concerned about government borrowings), and sometimes after long struggles (though accompanied by impatient sighs about the peculiar byways of Capitol Hill).

Those long struggles – three of them in 2013 alone, and two of them in 2015, 2017 and 2019 – are almost never about the level of the country’s debt. They are almost always about something else.

In this case, the something else includes Mr. Biden’s infrastructure plan and a separate massive spending bill that is loaded with climate and social-welfare initiatives that progressives prize.

The final denouement of this drama will come, like so much in American history, in a byword that can be traced to the 17th century, when early Quakers in England promulgated one of their guiding principles. Then as now it has always been a devout conviction of theirs that, in a phrase that animates their faith, “a way will come.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.