Earlier this week, Senate Republicans filibustered a bill that would have both funded the government and raised the debt ceiling. Yesterday, the Democrats in Congress, with the help of a handful of Republicans, managed to pass a workaround to keep the government going through December 3, funding and functioning. But the debt deadline is still ahead. If the debt ceiling is not raised by mid-October, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen put it, Letter To House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, “For the first time in our history the United States would be unable to honor its commitments.”
By refusing to raise the debt ceiling, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and Republicans are playing fast and easy with the country’s economy. This is not the first time McConnell has used extreme methods to achieve his goals – Merrick Garland comes to mind – nor the first time he has used the debt ceiling as a political weapon. During the Obama years, McConnell routinely threatened to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, which would ruin the economy if the Obama administration failed to comply. After it went quiet as the Trump administration added Trillions on national debt, McConnell and the GOP have praised now that a Democrat is back in the White House, defaulted on national debt. While they profess to be deeply concerned about fiscal conservatism, this sudden change of heart is not a question of political values or real economic interests – it is all about power.
These tactics have a disturbing precedent in the game book perfected by congressmen of the South before the Civil War – what some historians call “the Slavocracy”. Southerners of this era used their disproportionate representation in Congress to impose official measures in defense of their “way of life”. The millions of enslaved individuals inflated the population of the south and gave the southern leaders dominance in the House of Representatives. From 1801 to 1861 (7th Congress to 36th Congress) thirteen southerners served as speaker of the house while only six northerners did. To put the discrepancy even more clearly, a southerner was a speaker for almost 80 percent of the congressional sessions during these decades.
The 21st century Republican Party, with McConnell in prominent leadership positions since 2003, relies on a similar electoral imbalance to stay in power. Republican presidential candidates have won the referendum exactly once since the 1992 presidential election, in 2004, when George W. Bush won his reelection. Today the Senate is split into 50 Democratic Senators and 50 Republican Senators. As Ian Millhiser observed in January, the “Democratic half of the Senate” represented “41,549,808 more people than the Republican half”.
Republicans support too Legislation restricting access to voting in states like Texas and Georgia, where minority voters make up an increasing percentage of the electorate. Since minority voters are more likely to support Democratic candidates, Republicans are taking steps to discourage those voters from exercising their right to vote. It is noteworthy that these citizens are still part of the population and are therefore among the appointed representatives of the state.
Likewise, the Slavocracy used its inflated power to curtail the discussion of slavery. On May 26, 1836, James K. Polk, Speaker of the House from 1835 to 1839, set a “Gag rule“Prohibits any discussion of anti-slavery pamphlets or letters from abolitionists in the House of Commons. In the 1830s, abolitionist groups overwhelmingly organized petitions to draw Congress’ attention to slavery – astonishing 130,000 petitions 1837 alone. Concerned that continued debate would undermine slavery, Polk enacted the gag rule to automatically submit all petitions before they could be read, reprinted, or discussed.
Initially, the Northerners in Congress reacted modestly to these debatable measures, mainly trying to avoid conflict. They justified their concessions as crucial to maintaining the stability of the Union. John Quincy Adams and several others loudly protested the gag rule as an attack on the rights of the First Amendment, but the House of Representatives adopted the rule every year until 1844.
Silencing colleagues is a measure McConnell used as well. In 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren tried to read a letter written by Coretta Scott King about Jeff Sessions in the Senate. The letter alleged that Sessions “used the formidable power of his office to suppress the free exercise of the right to vote by black citizens.” The Senate Republicans reprimanded Warren for reading that line, and McConnell forbade her from taking part in the debate over nominations for attorney general.
After the gag rule was lifted in 1844, congressmen of the South took increasingly drastic measures to ward off attempts to limit or undermine slavery. Historian Joanne B. Freeman shown the creative way South Congressmen threatened violence to intimidate their northern counterparts. However, in late 1860, after Abraham Lincoln was elected president, the southerners came to the conclusion that threats of violence were not enough. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina separated from the Union and demanded that federal forces evacuate the federal fortresses. On January 9, 1861, the South Carolina Forces fired shots at ships attempting to supply the US forces stationed at Fort Sumter with supplies and reinforcements. US forces abandoned the fort on April 13, two days before the troops ran out of food.
As Treasury Secretary Yellen warned in her letter, on October 18, the federal government will run out of cash and default on its debt, taxpayers and negatively affect the creditworthiness of the United States. ”In other words, if the debt ceiling is not raised the economy could plunge into recession.
In response, McConnell reiterated that no Republican would support a debt increase. He is ready to take the risk of curbing the economy, destroying businesses and jobs, and doing immeasurable damage to the American people, only to regain Republican control of Congress. He’s not even subtle about these goals, as he is announced he focuses “100 percent” on “stopping” the Biden administration. While not using cannons, McConnell is holding the economy hostage, just as Confederate Brigadier General PGT Beauregard held US soldiers incarcerated at Fort Sumter hostage. McConnell’s dangerous tactic – disregarding national interests with potentially catastrophic consequences – is all too familiar to Slavocracy.