The Hill: Brendan Boyle’s plan to end debt ceiling games once and for all

Days before the federal government is expected to shutter its doors, the media’s attention has been focused on House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his raucous caucus.

Reneging on an agreement reached with President Biden last June to raise the debt ceiling and establish spending levels for the next fiscal year, McCarthy has yielded to the extreme Republican wing, which is demanding a shutdown showdown.
The de facto leader of the far-right wing, former President Donald Trump, demands that House Republicans “must defund all aspects of Crooked Joe Biden’s weaponized government that refuses to close the Border, and treats half the Country as Enemies of the State.” Revealing his true motivations, Trump argues that a shutdown is “the last chance to defund these political prosecutions against me and other Patriots.”

Amid this fight stands Democratic Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), who serves as ranking member of the House Budget Committee. Boyle is a tactile politician. In 2008, he was elected to the Pennsylvania state legislature, becoming the first Democrat to represent a formerly Republican district. Six years later he upset former Democratic congresswoman Marjorie Margolies. In 2019, Boyle offered an early endorsement of Joe Biden, believing a “national emergency” existed and that only Biden could oust Donald Trump.

Boyle understands not only politics but also policy. In 10 years, he has earned the respect of his colleagues for his work on fiscal matters. Earlier this year, Boyle was deeply immersed in the fight over the debt ceiling. Despite Biden and McCarthy’s last-minute agreement, the battle was not without costs. Fitch downgraded the U.S. credit rating citing “a steady deterioration in standards of governance.”

Boyle has introduced The Debt Ceiling Reform Act allowing the Treasury secretary to pay the nation’s bills absent a disapproval resolution from Congress.

In an interview I had with Boyle recently, he noted that several of his Republican colleagues have privately expressed “great relief at the prospect that we would never again have to play with the debt ceiling.” While the legislation is unlikely to pass this Congress, Boyle promises to make it his highest priority come January 2025.

A government shutdown comes with a high price tag. Boyle estimates that shuttering the government’s doors shaves one-tenth of one percent off the gross domestic product every month the government is closed. The last three shutdowns cost the American taxpayer 56,500 years in lost productivity from the federal workforce. As Boyle noted in my interview, TSA agents, air traffic controllers, furloughed employees in Social Security and Medicare offices and Veterans Administration benefits are all impacted. The result, says Boyle, is that we are in a “truly dysfunctional place in terms of the operations of Congress.”

For politicians like Boyle, much of this is surreal. As he stated, the extreme Republicans “don’t know why they want a shutdown other than they want to inflict the maximum amount of chaos as possible.”
In his book about Joe Biden titled “The Last Politician,” Franklin Foer defines politics as “the means by which a society mediates its differences of opinion, allowing for peaceful coexistence.” Compromise, conciliation and results are the bywords for any successful politician.

A frustrated Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.), who won in a pro-Biden district and understands how politics works, says: “I didn’t come here to shut the government down or play stupid games so we could raise $5 donations by claiming we’re doing something and sticking it to the administration, when in fact all they would be doing is screwing the American people.”

During the battle over ObamaCare in 2010, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said: “I didn’t come here to keep a job. I’m here to do a job.”

Practitioners of the art of politics know that sometimes doing a job can be unpopular with your base supporters. Ronald Reagan understood this early in his political career. Campaigning for governor in 1966, Reagan promised never to start a withholding system for California state income taxes, saying his feet were “in concrete.” But when faced with a $200 million deficit, Reagan gave way, saying, “The sound you hear is the concrete cracking around my feet.” George Deukmejian, a Republican state legislator who later became governor, said: “A lot of people, including me, thought he would be ideological. We learned quickly that he was very practical.”

Inside McCarthy’s office hangs a large portrait of his hero, Ronald Reagan. But unlike Reagan, who took risks with his erstwhile supporters, McCarthy refuses to confront his far-right base.

As Boyle explained, “McCarthy has bent over backward to give the Freedom Caucus everything they want. And they still say no to his face. I just wish for once that he would stand up to them and not be so afraid of having them put a motion to vacate the chair on the floor.” Nancy Pelosi describes McCarthy’s tenure as “an incredible shrinking speakership.”

The shortcomings of Congress represent a failure of politics. Instead of practicing the political process, the extreme wing of McCarthy’s caucus practices performance. By inciting the emotions of their supporters and getting them to make small-dollar contributions, far-right Republicans exert their power. For example, in just the first half of 2023, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has raised $1.7 million for her reelection campaign. No surprise then that McCarthy has promised: “I will never leave that woman. I will always take care of her.”

To function, Congress needs politicians like Brendan Boyle who help make the institution work. Despite the public’s disdain for politicians, their governing ethos of bipartisanship, compromise and achieving results are consistently rewarded at the polls. November 2024 will be no different.

As with the other Republican-instigated government shutdowns, voters will remember and exact their own form of punishment. Should this political maxim prevail, come 2025 Boyle will find himself in the chairperson’s seat of the House Budget Committee.

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