On one hand, the deal signed by Obama provides debt-ceiling relief only till February, when the debt ceiling will once again be reached. On the other hand, come February, it is unlikely the United States will manufacture another homemade debt crisis. Not because Obama “broke the GOP fever.” He didn’t. And not because Felix Salmon is wrong that an element of “revolutionary nihilism” will continue to pervade the GOP. He isn’t. Rather, a crisis is unlikely because of a substantive change to law. Included in the bill signed by Obama is what is called the “Default Prevention Act of 2013,” which temporarily changes the way Congress will vote on debt-ceiling hikes. The change is not being widely reported, but it’s right there in the bill. You can read it for yourself: section 1002, under the heading DEFAULT PREVENTION.
In a nutshell, this part of the law places in the executive more power to raise the debt ceiling, and does so by taking power away from Congress. Politico describes the act this way:
The legislation also includes a McConnell-written proposal that would allow Congress to disapprove of the debt-ceiling increase. Lawmakers will formally vote on rejecting the bump of the borrowing limit – if it passed, it could be vetoed by Obama.
Jonathan Chait paints a picture of what the change means in practice:
[T]he gist is that it changes the mechanics of the vote to make failure nearly impossible. Instead of needing Congress to approve a debt-ceiling increase, Congress has to override an Obama veto in order to prevent it. So now it would take a two-thirds vote to trigger the kind of terrifying failure that before could have been triggered by a 50 percent–plus–one vote.
That mechanism would utterly defang the debt ceiling, returning it to its historical place as an opportunity for ineffectual posturing rather than extortion. Alas, it only applies to the next debt-ceiling vote. But Democrats hope that using this method this time will set a precedent that eases the way for Congress to make it a permanent procedure. It seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, but the groundwork is being laid to one day lock up dangerous weaponry lying around the American political system and prevent future crises.
Because the “Default Prevention” part of the deal is not being widely reported, you probably haven’t heard about it. But it’s important; it effectively takes crisis off the table come February. I share Chait’s dismay that the change is only temporary, but I also share his optimism that, given a successful dry run this time, the change could well become permanent down the road. It ought to, for the good of the country. A rabidly revolutionary element of the conservative movement was willing to use the debt-ceiling to sow crisis and hold responsible actors hostage. Such tricks are necessary because a rabidly revolutionary minority of a minority can’t win national elections in the United States of America.
As such, a total win would have been eliminating the debt ceiling altogether. The “Default Prevention Act of 2013” is more like one quarter of a win. Given the context, I’ll take it.