First Branch Forecast for May 30, 2023: The debt limit agreeement


Appropriations bills’ markups, scheduled to begin last week, have taken a hiatus awaiting the outcome of the topic du jour. It’s not clear that House Republicans would have been able to pass those bills individually.

This week: the deal that Pres. Biden and Speaker McCarthy have reached to raise the debt limit scrambled the calendar, which had the House out of session. The bill text went online Sunday at 7:13 PM. A vote, which must be 72 hours later, can be no earlier than Wednesday evening; we doubt it will follow the single subject rule. There’s also a Senate Budget hearing on Wednesday on “rejecting the false choice between default and austerity.”

Some commentators have noted that the substance of the deal could have been far worse. On the other hand, it’s notable for being built around the debt limit, the White House’s forbearance from using its statutory and constitutional powers, the attempt to delink defense and nondefense spending levels and de facto cuts for nondefense, punching down at the poor, and with a bonus Joe Manchin give-away.

The expiration of the debt limit has now been kicked down the road to just before the start of the 119th Congress, which will shape the first few months of that Congress as they try to mollify a small faction now emboldened to use the ceiling as a weapon of mass economic destruction. Sooner or later, someone’s going to trigger a detonation. And, of course, this bill still has to pass, which means possible shenanigans in the Rules Committee. And there’s still all those appropriations bills.

Please indulge us in a look back on the institutional factors that got us to this point.


Regular readers of this newsletter will notice that two of the themes we track to understand how Congress is working are how procedural rules shape congressional action, and the political factions that exist under the larger tents of the two parties. These themes, of course, interact because the spate of chamber, committee, and party rules often are designed to empower in-groups, minimize or isolate out-groups, and empower factions skilled in their use to maximize leverage to get what they want.

Process is Power

The MAGA rump of the Republican Party has spent roughly the last decade learning and mastering rules and procedural advantages, particularly in the House, to elevate themselves within the conference. This process, exemplified in the creation of the Freedom Caucus, started awkwardly by chasing Speaker John Boehner from Congress altogether when then-Rep. Mark Meadows filed a motion to vacate the chair in 2015. The House Freedom Caucus then leveraged the organization of the 118th Congress masterfully to insert itself as the de facto leadership of the new majority through the concessions it pulled from Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s desperate grab at the speakership.

The result today is the nation danced on the knife-edge of defaulting on its debt in an attempt to enact as much of the MAGA agenda as possible, which was the exact goal of the HFC faction after the midterm elections. They said it repeatedly in public. The conditions for minority rule were ripe — that a determined faction were creating the procedural conditions to lead to exactly this crisis.

What is most astonishing to us is that so many Democratic leaders did little to try to stop it, either because they were dismissive of its threat or thought it was a scenario that could be “won.”

“Winning” was almost capitulation. The end result, nevertheless, reflects Republican values of redistributing wealth upward, which some factions within the Democratic Party have no problem with either. The compromise bill makes it harder for vulnerable Americans to feed their families. Defense contractors will not face flat budgets and some will use this as a basis to delink funding between wartime activities and those that benefit all of us. Senator Joe Manchin even gets his West Virginia fossil fuel buddies a pipeline.

The Wealth Redistribution Cycle and Factional Power

We see this play repeatedly. When you have affirmative political power, cut taxes on the wealthy and big corporations. When you only have veto power (i.e., right now), use the ensuing debt talk to argue for cuts for federal spending policies that broaden who has access to wealth. Protect spending for the military, which is a proxy for industry, i.e., the defense contractors. Know that enough Dems will go along on bad faith debt arguments and pro-military arguments that you can toggle back and forth.

In fact, Congress is already planning to evade spending caps on matters like war. The Ways and Means Committee is working on further loosening of the tax code for businesses weeks after the X-date that cost close to $3 trillion in future revenue, ensuring they can rerun the deficit spending arguments on domestic spending all over again.

Debt limit hostage taking has become an epicycle of this governing strategy, insisting debt driven by lost tax revenue has reached a crisis point because of domestic spending under a Democratic administration. It ain’t for nothing that Republicans successfully won a $20 billion decrease in funding for the IRS over the next two years and forestalled revenue raisers (i.e., refused to end tax breaks).

The right has learned to use Democrats’ own factionalism against them, pitting those most cozy with fundraising constituencies in financial services and defense against progressives pushing for more robust social spending, equitable taxation, and defense cuts. It works because Democrats insist their unity subsumes these factional fractures.

Perhaps most significantly, this latest round signals that the MAGA forces that have captured much of the Right’s intellectual establishment understand that the machinery of Congress can be leveraged to force Democratic administrations to conform to conservative desires. They see Congress as an avenue for power, right down to expanding a physical footprint around the Capitol.

The left has no equivalent and continues to look to green lanternism in the White House, rather than building pathways within Congress, to achieve policy aims.

What makes this situation so frustrating is the debt hostage takers practically erected a billboard on the National Mall about these plans even before the midterms and it’s the same plan the GOP ran twice before. Ways and Means Chair Jason Smith told Axios in September Republicans should provoke a debt limit crisis to “reverse” spending policies approved by the 117th Congress. Republicans in this story responded that this was a “nightmare scenario” and a test for McCarthy’s leadership. As we flagged, by mid-October, all four members vying for the chair that eventually went to Smith endorsed the strategy.

The MAGA faction also was clear about how it intended to become the determinant political force in the House by forcing procedural changes that empowered it over Chamber of Commerce Republican normies. The Freedom Caucus got our attention in October by producing an excellent 52-page guide for like-minded candidates certain to win noncompetitive elections that explained members should insist on greater presence on committees, more power on the floor, and the return of the motion to vacate the chair to push preferred policies upon leadership and the conference.

Allies at places like the Conservative Partnership Institute urged Freedom Caucus members to think of themselves as a third party in a coalition government instead of a faction that would go along to get along and receive the occasional crumb from leadership. Daniel was on a panel where things like this were said.

Much of the political press fixated on the McCarthy speakership election drama instead of what it was baking into the new Congress – an antistatist minority faction would be leading McCarthy by his nose on policy because it now held the strongest procedural hand. Rep. Matt Gaetz summarized this result perfectly last week: “I believe the one-person motion to vacate has given us the best version of Speaker McCarthy and I think he’s doing a good job.” He added he didn’t think the HFC should be negotiating with “our hostage.”

Our Strength is in our Factions

Democrats had multiple avenues to outmaneuver this faction, but they refused to engage with the proto-parliamentary dynamics the Freedom Caucus was creating. The outgoing leadership team and their successors prioritized party unity, both internally and against Republicans. This is a fundamental mistake that priorities power for those at the top of the Democratic party at the expense of moving its priorities.

In addition, as we noted throughout the lame duck session, Democratic leadership did not act with any urgency on the debt limit (or voting rights, or codifying Roe…). Reporting last week revealed that some of the reason was the learned helplessness of maintaining long-standing yet nonsensical norms, with President Biden considering some Democrats’ urging to eliminate the debt limit altogether as “irresponsible ” even though only Denmark among the other nations of the world operate this way. (It appears that Pres. Biden may be belatedly changing his tune, announcing in a statement Sunday that he may look at the 14th Amendment for the next go round.)

Congressional leadership in the lame duck pointed to Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, who blathered on about ending the debt ceiling in a bipartisan fashion and outside of budget reconciliation (or filibuster carveouts). Dems decided not to make these two take any tough votes, or even probe if they could peel a retiring Republican Senator or two off to go along. Why not try?

This reluctance essentially defined the debt limit hostage-taking on Republican terms as Manchin parroted their insistence on bipartisan negotiation being the proper solution. It’s like the cat negotiating with the canary. As Sinema is now an Independent, wouldn’t her presence make that deal bipartisan? Bipartisanship is just a fiction created by editorial writers who don’t understand the factions within and among the parties.

Prioritizing unity also meant minimizing factionalism within their own ranks, particularly in limiting the reach of progressives. Members like Rep. Brendan Boyle had been warning of the risk as it emerged before the election, but were ignored, as was the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center’s significant analysis and guidance on the issue for years. New House leadership kept existing caucus rules in place and rejected efforts to rebalance the Steering and Policy Committee to reflect a broader range of policy positions. They and their successors then set out to try to win the politics of a debt limit showdown, even after the last battle ended in brutal sequestration of federal social safety net spending.

As the 118th Congress met to organize, we also warned that Democratic leadership did not appreciate that MAGA factionalism had changed the game in the House. Exploiting the modern congressional imperative for partisan unity, the MAGA right leveraged the speakership election to effectively secure control of the processes of the House and by extension its governing agenda. As Daniel and James Wallner wrote at the time, this was a legitimate play by smart political actors. McCarthy’s cooler-headed supporters just had to stand by and wait for him to give away the store, all in the name of unity.

The new generation of Democratic leadership did not, as we urged, offer an alternative rules package that reflected the factionalized GOP and could have attracted mainstream conservative support to isolate it. Instead, they proclaimed “unity is our strength” and relished watching the “chaos” of the speakership election that turned out to be the ascension of a faction that was fed up with their own leadership’s ineffectual efforts to decimate Democratic domestic policy priorities.

They did nothing to try to make a deal with those Republican members who describe their fellow partisans as “the Taliban” or those who won in suburban districts President Biden carried who now have the HFC albatross around their necks. One of the concessions extracted from McCarthy, let’s remember, was a guarantee of going forward with the MAGA debt limit hostage raid.

Congressional Democrats were left waiting for the Executive branch to act on their behalf, and it dallied into these last-ditched negotiations that face considerable uncertainty as they translate into legislation to be voted on in just the nick of time. The White House failed to explain that the debt limit crisis was not “politics as usual” and that out-of-bounds tactics were being used by a minority faction of one chamber of Congress. Astonishingly, the final deal does not nuke the debt limit for good.

MAGA Republicans have come to understand the factions inside the Democratic party and are using them against the Democrats. So long as the Democrats fail to express their internal factions, and fail to rein in the incentives leadership has to control those factions to maintain their own power, the goals that the majority of Democrats likely support will continue to be underexpressed as policy outcomes.

What now?

We’ll see how many progressives decide to vent their frustrations this week by voting against the debt limit deal once whip counts assure corporate Dems’ votes get it across the finish line. They likely will be joined in opposition by the MAGA hardliners, who having won this round, will say that the deal does not go far enough. They will do this to start pulling the next deal — and Speaker McCarthy — even further to the right. Now only still defusing this debt debacle, but positioning for the next debt ceiling fight in 18 months.

We present this analysis not to say “we told you so” (ok, not only to say that) but to emphasize once again that viewing Congress through the lenses of factions — of procedural and conference rules, of institutional capacity, and the availability of quality information — allow for an understanding that transcends the typical horse race and personality-driven coverage.

Tracking how the MAGA wing was defining itself and what it was setting out to do within the institution even before the start of the 118th Congress allowed us to see this smash up coming from miles away.

We’re doubly frustrated because we agree with House progressives that this showdown is not about the federal debt but is about who has power within American society. Going a step further, it’s also about tolerating what amounts to a minority rule. Weaker social safety nets, especially if coupled with the judiciary’s destruction of the regulatory state, allows corporations and the rich to dominate as they did during the Gilded Age. Meanwhile, as budget caps return, the prospect of appropriate federal response to global warming while it could still make an impact seems dim.

This situation offers plenty of lessons going forward. Progressives and neoliberal Democrats alike should appreciate that factional divides can be leveraged at key moments to boost power and influence over the direction of a majority. Everyone should start to understand that adherence to partisan unity affected their personal political outcomes. As the rank and file think about Democratic leadership, they need to start thinking about how factionalism can play a role in accomplishing policy goals they say they believe in and deciding to act from a different playbook.

Related Resources

The House Rules committee will hold a hearing on the debt limit deal, a.k.a. the Fiscal Responsibility Act, on Tuesday. The bill text is here, hearing information will be here, and per the majority’s weekly floor schedule, the legislation is expected to be voted upon Wednesday.


Appropriators hit pause on full committee markups last week, including of the Legislative branch bill, until the debt limit crisis is settled. We did get to see the Leg branch report, however, which as always includes capacity-building morsels and directives for legislative support office reform. Our colleague Taylor Swift has assembled this comprehensive spreadsheet of report language, including responsible agencies and timelines for completion. He’s also pulled together an analysis of the current funding allocations along with a line-by-line accounting of the last three fiscal years’ spending bills.

We’ll save full analysis for after the markup, especially as we may see manager’s amendments to the bill text and report language. Here are a few items that stand out.

CAO: With interest building inside and outside the House on how AI could improve the congressional workplace, the report asks the CAO to formalize its AI working group and conduct regular meetings with external and internal stakeholders. The committee also asks CAO to conduct a feasibility study of creating an electronic database of authorized spending to allow for historical tracking, which, as something we’ve done by hand, would be extremely helpful.

It directs CAO to provide a cybersecurity threat briefing within 60 days and reiterates report language in last year’s package supporting an internal digital staff directory. The report language formally folds the Office of Diversity and Inclusion into CAO. Finally, the report asks the office to expedite hiring of staff for the child care center, which expanded in 2020 but was underutilized because of COVID concerns during the pandemic.

CRS: The report directs CRS to publish its non-confidential reports as HTML for public use, which we’ve been asking for since time immemorial. Amusingly, the committee also requests CRS release the findings of its Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which leadership shielded from view but the CRS employees union cited liberally to describe the low approval of top management in a letter to Librarian Carla Hayden.

Noting that CRS and GAO have built out specialized science and technology research teams in response to a 2019 NAPA study about reviving the Office of Technology Assessment, the report also requests CRS to support this growing need with dedicated teams and congressional outreach.

GAO: The committee requests that the office build off piloted work to publish its reports as HTML as well as PDFs.

US Capitol Police: The committee requested the department work with the Sergeants at Arms offices to direct patrols to where members typically congregate and refocus on risk-based protections for members. It also reiterated congressional requests for the department’s IG to release reports to the public and requested it expedite the process. This bill, we remind you, includes more than an 8% funding increase for the department — greater than the inflation rate — compared to flat funding for almost everyone else.


As CHA modernization subcommittee chair and a member of the Leg branch appropriations subcommittee, Rep. Stephanie Bice is central to much of what’s outlined above and the institutional reform issues we track. We took note of what she said to Roll Call’s Jim Saksa in a one-on-one interview last week.

Sitting on four committees herself, Bice mentioned her interest in block scheduling for committee hearings to avoid overlaps. She focused a lot of her attention on congressional staff, however, citing interest in shifting to bimonthly payments and improving child care access. Child care is a core for her as she is leading a bipartisan effort on national paid family leave. (We are big believers in improving congressional child care options.) Bice also noted that the MRA has not been adjusted for inflation, which “is something we should look at, but is something that was probably a long time coming.” Having a member humanize these issues will help others better understand the importance of them.


The House Office of Diversity and Inclusion has released its much awaited report on nongovernmental witnesses before House committees during 2022. Of the 1,717 witnesses, 467 responded to the voluntary survey. The report provides a House-wide view and also breaks the data down by committee. Unfortunately, the information was published only as a PDF and not a spreadsheet file, which makes analyzing the information difficult. (The publication only in PDF is an issue with all of their publications.)

Among the findings:

  • Witnesses spanned 46 states, 23 tribal nations, and five foreign countries, with most witnesses from the national capital region, New York, and California
  • 50% of witnesses were men; 48% were women
  • 61% were white; 15% Black; 7% Asian; 6% Latino
  • 91% were heretosexual or straight
  • 58% were younger than 55
  • 8% had a disability
  • 10% had military experience

Data about congressional operations are essential to understanding the institution and measuring whether it is functioning properly. We are glad to see these metrics come on line and we are hopeful for more.


The House Ethics Committee has cleared Rep. Eric Swalwell of violating chamber rules through his interactions with an alleged Chinese spy who worked on his campaign. House Republicans nominally kicked him off the House Intelligence Committee over these allegations, although really in retaliation for his January 6th related work.

The Senate sergeant-at-arms office is closing corridors to the press when Sen. Dianne Feinstein is arriving at the Capitol, according to an LA Times photographer who was shooed away from one entryway. “This unprecedented act of restricting press freedom only raises more questions,” Ken Nishimura writes. Staff also routinely form a protective bubble around her as they move her around the complex.

The Capitol is famously and appropriately open to the public and the press. This behavior by the SSA and USCP undermines this norm and starts to draw protective services in the direction of a praetorian guard. It’s a completely reasonable thing for the press to observe if Sen. Feinstein is up for this work. Two-thirds of Californians think she’s no longer fit for work, and 52% of Democratic voters think she should resign.

Factions: Once 50-odd strong, the Blue Dog Coalition now can barely field a sled dog team. It’s down to nine members, ten fewer than last year.


The Committee on House Administration held a short business meeting last Wednesday to adopt regulations to provide that, during each session of each Congress, each member, officer, and employee (including interns and fellows) of the House shall complete workplace rights training under part A of title II of the CAA. Training must be completed within 90 days.

A summer mentoring program organized by the Capitol Hill Intern Association and the Modernization Staff Association will return this year. It will run from June 6 to August 1 and is open to all staff in both chambers and in state and district offices. Sign up to be a mentor at this link, and request to be a mentee at this one. The deadline is Friday.

It’s important to hear how psychologically draining working in Congress can be when the constant politicization of personal experiences like having an abortion are inescapable.

The Law Library of Congress is chugging along in a multiyear digitization project of its historical and contemporary report collections. It announced last week it has passed the 4,000 mark of digitized reports on a variety of topics. What the Law Library did here is pretty fantastic. They found thousands of historical reports, scanned them, and worked with the public to then re-type the context so it is searchable and usable.

We started tinkering with a YouTube video summarizer with committee hearing videos. It works pretty well, but only with shorter videos.

Daniel has summarized the last meeting of the Congressional Data Task Force. The next one is coming up on June 22. Don’t forget to RSVP.

The House Administration Committee announced the 2023 Summer Intern Lecture Series, which runs from June 7 to July 20, 2023. The talks will be hybrid, and the House already has announced speakers for next week. Reach out to the committee to be added to the announcement distro list.


Congressional Committee Calendar

~ Tuesday, May 30 ~

OCWR will hold a webinar on its role under the Congressional Accountability Act and the rights and responsibilities of covered Legislative branch employees at 1 PMRegister at this link.

Levin Center Fellows will present their research on congressional oversight from noon to 1:15 PM via webinar, which you can RSVP for here.

~ Down the road ~

The Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress will hold its biannual meeting on June 5 from 10 AM to noon in room SVC-209 at the U.S. Capitol. To attend the open meeting, you must RSVP by June 2.

The DC Legal Hackers will host Max Ghenis, xo-founder and CEO of Policy Engine, to talk about the tools they provide, on Monday, June 5 at 6 PM. RSVP.

Book launch party for Jennifer Pahlka, author of Recording America, in conversation with Matt Lira on Tuesday, June 6, at 7 PM at the Library of Congress. RSVP here.

The FOIA Advisory Committee will meet (virtually) on June 8 from 10 AM to 12:30 PM. More information and a link for registration is available here.

The POPVOX Foundation will hold its annual Internpalooza event along with members of the First Branch Intern Project on June 8 from 3-6 PM in the Capitol Visitors Center Auditorium. Register for the event here.

Why Congress! The new book from noted AEI scholar Philip Wallach will be the topic of a book talk and panel discussion with two former members of Congress, moderated by Kevin Kosar, on June 8 from 4-5:15 PM at the AEI Auditorium. Register for the event here. It tells the story of “why our increasingly divided politics demand a legislature capable of pitting factions against each other and forcing them to work out accommodations.”

The Office of Government Information Services will hold its annual open meeting on June 13 starting at 10 AMFollow this link to register – deadline is June 11.

The next meeting of the Congressional Data Task Force will be on June 22 from 2-4 PM in B-248/B-249 Longworth. Attendees must register here in advance.

OCWR will hold a webinar on its role under the Congressional Accountability Act and the rights and responsibilities of covered Legislative branch employees on June 27 at 1 PMRegister here.