House Republicans said last week that they were planning to bring up a “clean” debt ceiling bill for a vote, possibly as early as this week. A “clean” bill is an increase in the amount the government is allowed to borrow without deficit reduction measures or other provisions. It’s what Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said a month or so ago he would do but then backed off when he was warned that its rejection could roil financial markets. It’s also the same bill demanded by Rep. Peter Welch (Vt.) and more than 100 other Democrats who say it’s the right way to proceed.
In today’s world of sound bites and spin, it’s hard to argue with the name. After all, a clean debt ceiling bill seems to belong to a long list of things that are generally assumed to be on the side of the angels such as clean coal technology, the clean margins surgeons hope for when they examine a cancer patient and the clean plate club our moms used to tell us about. But in the current debate, a clean debt ceiling bill has a number of dark meanings and foreboding implications that make it less than totally benign and completely desirable.
It’s no secret that House Republicans plan to bring the bill to a vote because they want it to fail. Their goal is for the bill to be voted down by a wide margin so they can claim there’s no support for increasing the debt ceiling without substantial deficit reductions.
But the claim will actually be an extraordinary fallacy because a debt ceiling increase that includes deficit reductions is just as likely to be rejected. Some Representatives would vote against it just because it would increase the government’s borrowing limit, others would oppose it because of the specific spending cuts and revenue increases, and others would vote “no” because they want deeper deficit reduction. In other words — and completely contrary to the demagoguery, spin and hyperbole that will be used when the debate is over and the clean bill has failed — it’s not at all certain that a big “no” vote for a clean debt ceiling increase means that the opposite is true and a majority is clamoring for an increase that includes deficit reductions.