The Debt Ceiling Debate Is About More Than Debt

WASHINGTON — Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California has repeatedly said that he and his fellow House Republicans are refusing to raise the nation’s borrowing limit, and risking economic catastrophe, to force a reckoning on America’s $31 trillion national debt.

“Without exaggeration, America’s debt is a ticking time bomb that will detonate unless we take serious, responsible action,” he said this week.

But the bill Mr. McCarthy introduced on Wednesday would only modestly change the nation’s debt trajectory. It also carries a second big objective that has little to do with debt: undercutting President Biden’s climate and clean energy agenda and increasing American production of fossil fuels.

The legislation, which Republicans plan to vote on next week, is meant to force Mr. Biden to negotiate over raising the debt limit, which is currently capped at $31.4 trillion. Unless the cap is lifted, the federal government — which borrows huge sums of money to pay its bills — is expected to run out of cash as early as June.

More than half of the 320 pages of legislative text are a rehash of an energy bill Republicans passed earlier this year, which aimed to speed up leasing and permitting for oil and gas drilling. Republicans claim the bill would boost economic growth and bring in more revenue for the federal government, though the Congressional Budget Office projected it would slightly lose revenue.

The Republican plan also gives priority to removing clean energy incentives that were included in Mr. Biden’s signature climate, health and tax law. That legislation, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, included tax credits and other provisions meant to encourage electric vehicle sales, advanced battery production, utility upgrades and a variety of energy efficiency efforts.

The proposal does include provisions that would meaningfully reduce government spending and deficits, most notably by limiting total growth in certain types of federal spending from 2022 levels.

The bill would claw back some unspent Covid relief money and impose new work requirements that could reduce federal spending on Medicaid and food assistance. It would block Mr. Biden’s proposal to forgive hundreds of billions of dollars in student loan debt and a related plan to reduce loan payments for low-income college graduates.

As a result, it would reduce deficits by as much as $4 trillion over those 10 years, according to calculations by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget in Washington. The actual number could be much smaller; lawmakers could vote in the future to ignore spending caps, as they have in the past.

Even if the entire estimated savings from the plan came to pass, it would still leave the nation a decade from now with total debt that is larger than the annual output of the economy — a level that Mr. McCarthy and other Republicans have frequently labeled a crisis.

The Republican plan is estimated to reduce that ratio — known as debt-to-G.D.P. — in 2033 by about 9 percentage points if fully enacted. By contrast, Mr. Biden’s latest budget, which raises trillions of dollars in new taxes from corporations and high earners and includes new spending on child care and education, would reduce the ratio by about 6 percentage points.

Those reductions are a far cry from Republicans’ promises, after winning control of the House in November, to balance the budget in 10 years. That lowering of ambitions is partly the product of Republican leaders ruling out any cuts to the fast-rising costs of Social Security or Medicare, bowing to an onslaught of political attacks from Mr. Biden.

The lower ambitions are also the result of party leaders being unwilling or unable to repeal most of the new spending programs Mr. Biden signed into law over the first two years of his presidency, often with bipartisan support.

At the New York Stock Exchange on Monday, Mr. McCarthy accused the president and his party of already adding “$6 trillion to our nation’s debt burden,” ignoring the bipartisan support enjoyed by most of the spending Mr. Biden has signed into law.

The speaker’s plan would effectively roll back one big bipartisan spending bill, which Mr. Biden signed at the end of 2022 to fund the government through this year. But the other big drivers of debt approved under Mr. Biden that are not singled out for repeal in the Republican bill include trillions in new spending on semiconductor manufacturing, health care for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits and upgrades to critical infrastructure like bridges, water pipes and broadband.

Some of that spending could potentially be reduced by congressional appropriators working under the proposed spending caps, but much of it is exempt from the cap or already out the door. Most of the $1.9 trillion economic aid plan Mr. Biden signed in March 2021, which Republicans blame for fueling high inflation, is already spent as well.

The plan squarely targets the climate, health and tax bill that Democrats passed along party lines last summer by cutting that bill’s energy subsidies. It would also rescind additional enforcement dollars that the law sent to the Internal Revenue Service to crack down on wealthy tax cheats. The Congressional Budget Office says that change would cost the government about $100 billion in tax revenue.

Taken together, those efforts reduce deficits by a bit over $100 billion, suggesting debt levels are not the primary consideration in targeting those provisions. The bill’s next 200 pages show what actually is: a sustained push to tilt federal support away from low-emission energy and further toward fossil fuels, including mandating new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and reducing barriers to the construction of new pipelines.

Republicans say those efforts would save consumers money by reducing gasoline and heating costs. Democrats say they would halt progress on Mr. Biden’s efforts to galvanize domestic manufacturing growth and fight climate change.

The plan “would cost Americans trillions in climate harm,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, the Democratic chairman of the Budget Committee. “And it would shrink our economy by disinvesting in the technologies of tomorrow.”

Republicans have positioned their fossil fuel efforts as a solution to a supposed production crisis in the United States. “I have spent the last two years working with the other side of the aisle, watching them systematically take this country apart when it comes to our natural resources,” Representative Jerry Carl of Alabama said last month before voting to pass the energy bill now embedded in the debt ceiling bill.

Government statistics show a rosier picture for the industry. Oil production in the United States has nearly returned to record highs under Mr. Biden. The Energy Department projects it will smash records next year, led by output increases from Texas and New Mexico. Natural gas production has never been higher.

White House officials warn that Republicans are risking a catastrophic default with their demands attached to raising the borrowing cap. “The way to have a real negotiation on the budget is for House Republicans to take threats of default, when it comes to the economy and what it could potentially do to the economy, off the table,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Thursday.

Mr. McCarthy has defended his entire set of demands as a complete package to reorient economic policy. But he only mentioned energy in passing in his speech to Wall Street.

The issue he called a crisis — and the basis he cited for refusing to raise the borrowing limit without conditions — was fiscal policy and debt. Debt limit negotiations, he said “are an opportunity to examine our nation’s finances.”

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