Policy preview: ending the debt ceiling?
The US’ debt ceiling is among the most despised institutions of US politics, from the perspective of the Democratic Party. The ceiling formally institutes a limit on how much the US government can borrow – but in practice it has never done so, having been consistently raised since its introduction just over 100 years ag, even in the 1990’s when then-president Bill Clinton managed to run a rare surplus.
The ceiling is once again in the news after the Republican Party refused to support raising it in a procedural vote on 27 September. The ceiling was of course consistently raised under former president Trump, when Republicans controlled the Senate, and it was formally suspended for two years in August 2019. While this may well have avoided its politicisation during the COVID-19 pandemic, the vast government spending rapidly required by the initial response to the virus highlighted the potential risks in retaining such a limit.
Democrats argue that the Republican Party politicises the limit every time that it is out of power, pointing to the government shutdowns that resulted from refusals to raise the limit when Barack Obama was president and former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 1995 move to separate the increase from the annual budgetary process. But at the same time the Democrats have been wary of publicly calling for its elimination, which could be perceived by voters as embracing fiscal irresponsibility.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned that failure to raise the ceiling could lead to a formal default, declaring this would push the US back into recession. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell – who former president Donald Trump nominated to replace Yellen in that post – has made the same point.
Republican Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell has used the latest standoff to say that the buck stops with the Democratic Party this time, given the party’s control of both houses of Congress and the presidency. He is correct in that the Democrats can use the budget reconciliation process – which would override the Republican ability to filibuster such a vote – to eliminate the debt ceiling. Yet the Democrats are seemingly unwilling to open the 2022 budget resolution to do so, which could galvanise opposition to increased spending from centrist Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kirsten Cinema, already engaged in a standoff with their own party over a US$3.5 trillion social policy and US$1 trillion infrastructure bill.
The Democratic Party may therefore have an interest in allowing a brief crisis over the debt ceiling even as they control all branches of government. Previous shutdowns have failed to significantly affect domestic political trends. McConnell’s relationship with Trump and the less fiscally cautious wing of the party that has been so ascendant since his 2016 election victory is strained, with Trump reportedly seeking to stoke a leadership challenge among Republican Senators. Despite McConnell’s declarations, the intricacies of Senate parliamentary process are not of interest to most American voters.
Strange as it may seem, if Democrats are hoping to lay the blame for any fallout at McConnell’s feat, in hopes it will engender an environment in which they can finally push through the debt ceiling’s abolition in 2022.
“Democrats have every tool they need to raise the debt limit. It is their sole responsibility”. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
Power play: Der Kingmaker
Germans went to the polls on Sunday, and the election appears to already have a likely winner. The leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Olaf Scholz, is look set to be the next Chancellor. However, the two smaller parties he will need to support his governing coalition will have to find a lot of compromise.
The SDP won the most seats in the election in a disappointing night for the Angela Merkel’s governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
The party sitting closest politically to the two largest parties, the SDP and the CDU, and thus natural coalition partners in the next government is the FDP, whose leader Lindner has been described as a ‘kingmaker’ who must choose the next leader of the Republic.
However, a coalition made up of the CDU, FDP and Greens, is politically implausible. The CDU suffered a heavy defeat on Sunday, losing a quarter of its support compared to the last election in 2017. Their leader is already facing calls to resign from within his own party, and is no longer a serious contender for the Chancellery.
The most likely outcome is a ‘traffic-light’ coalition between the Greens, the SDP, and the FDP. The SDP will need to form a coalition with these parties in order to form a government. But while the Greens favour statist intervention, the FDP is more aligned to a laissez-fair economic doctrine, preaching faith in markets to solve the climate crisis.
So while Lindner may no longer the ‘kingmaker’ – with little tangible choice over who will be the next Chancellor – more significant may be areas where the Greens and the FDP can find common ground. Whereas the Greens and SDP largely align on economic policy, the FDP support significant tax cuts and adherence to the debt brake. Division over climate issues such as the future of the car sector, Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and how to best protect households from the impact of climate policies, may prove to be sticking points.
However, early signs suggest compromise is possible – the Greens and FDP already have entered negotiations between themselves to better enable them to present a united front. To give just one example, Lindner has called for a state investment fund, separate from the federal budget, borrowing and invest with higher returns. The Greens may well see this as the route to climate infrastructure investment without having to increase national debt to unacceptable levels.
Perhaps Lindner will not be kingmaker, with Scholz apparently already Chancellor-in-waiting. But the success of Germany’s next government will depend on how much compromise can be reached by the FDP and the Greens – and early signs are promising.
“For me, it is always important that I go through all the possible options for a decision”.Chancellor Angela Merkel
Dollars and sense: Lithium in coalition
Germany’s Green Party is all but certain to enter its next government after the 26 October elections – having come in third, both the first-place Social Democrats (SPD) and the runner-up Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have they want to discuss forming a coalition with the party. Any realistic coalition other than a renewed CDU-SPD grand coalition, which both have said they wish to avoid, would require the Green’s participation. The Green’s environmental agenda has been embraced by both as well, but one major question facing any new coalition will be how they balance environmentalism and NIMBYism.
Pollsters reported that more Germans identified climate change as their primary concern going into the elections, rapidly overtaking COVID-19 as the summer progressed. The German auto industry has also undergone a rapid shift to supporting the electric transition for the sector as well, spurred on by Tesla’s development of a ‘gigafactory’ outside Berlin – something the outgoing grand coalition pushed for. The CDU’s chancellor candidate, Armin Laschet, even met with Elon Musk in mid-August, seeking to brandish his parties green credentials.
Incidentally, Laschet posed a question to Musk that said gets to the heart of Germany’s green agenda: “hydrogen, or electric?”. Musk laughed it off, endorsing the later (on which he has staked his company) wholeheartedly but that such a question could still be posed in German politics highlights the quiet discomfort many at its peak express with regards to a core aspect of the transition: the supply of lithium batteries.
Demand for lithium has grown exponentially over the past decade, but Europe has repeatedly failed to develop its own sources. Plans for lithium mining in Portugal collapsed in April, and while the UK has made some very early tentative progress towards exploiting its own lithium, post-Brexit competition and EU rule-of-origin and tariffs mean that integrating European auto manufacturing with UK battery production is unrealistic at present.
Despite the enthusiasm for the green agenda, the Green Party has been at the forefront of opposition to lithium mining. At the European level, the party has fiercely opposed the US$2.4 billion Rio Tinto led Jadar mine project in Serbia over concerns it will degrade the local biodiversity and agricultural fertility and in solidarity with local protests.
Whatever coalition is formed in Germany, it will have to deal with the reality that Berlin risks being left behind if Europe remains without a significant local lithium supply. Otherwise, its auto industry risks being left behind.
“We have to think of where the raw materials come from… but we want to further develop and expand electro-mobility here in Germany, particularly with the production of batteries”. Annalena Baerbock, co-leader of the Green Party