Congressional Republicans are feeling heat from their base for compromising with the president and Senate Democrats on the budget — or, as we used to call it, “governing.” And so, with yet another debt-ceiling limit increase on the horizon in February or March, House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have said we will default on the national debt unless they extract some concessions. Can you guess what such a concession might be?
Here’s Ryan on Hugh Hewitt’s popular conservative talk radio show on Tuesday, speaking with Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.):
With respect to the debt limit, you and I and our colleagues are going to have to meet early after the holidays to decide what’s the right course going forward in that. We’ve never just done nothing. We want to make sure that we’re taking steps in the direction of fiscal conservatism, of fiscal responsibility. I, for one, think we need to do more in the energy sector. I believe we need to approve Keystone Pipeline. We need to produce regulatory certainties to all this private capital that develops this energy boon. We could be an energy independent continent within a decade if we stop the government from stopping it from happening. If we just get the government out of the way, it could be a real renaissance of oil and gas exploration in America, lower our gas prices, stop sending this money to foreign countries. It helps us with our foreign policy. So I think there are things we can do in our majority to leverage.
As Jonathan Chait points out in New York magazine, it’s false to claim that the House has never just raised the debt ceiling in exchange for nothing. They almost always do so, including just the last time they raised the debt ceiling in October. It makes sense that they get nothing in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, because paying bills we have already run up is not a favor to the president. Since Ryan just struck a budget deal, the debt ceiling increase is necessary simply to carry out the very budget he crafted. So Ryan’s threat is hypocritical at best.
And the Keystone XL pipeline doesn’t even have anything to do with the budget, let alone the debt limit.
In the last standoff over the federal budget, the one that led to an economy-damaging government shutdown, one of the GOP’s demands was that Obama approve Keystone. This is a silly request. It’s not silly because approving the pipeline is a silly idea. It’s a bad idea, to be sure, but not a self-evidently ridiculous one on its own terms. But it is ridiculous, and utterly nonsensical, to demand that the president approve an oil pipeline in order to pass the budget and keep the government running. Republican demands that Democrats agree to cut spending may be ill-advised, but they are at least on topic.
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Keystone pipeline approval would have no discernible budgetary impact. The nominal excuse for attaching Keystone approval to any budget deal is that it would be good for the economy. Republicans believe all extraction of natural resources is good for the economy. Or maybe the Koch brothers just pay them to say that. Either way, it’s not true.
Keystone proponents claim the pipeline would create many jobs and lower gasoline prices. In a typical example from the 2012 election, Mitt Romney’s campaign offered the following inspiring vision in a TV commercial: “Day One, President Romney immediately approves the Keystone pipeline, creating thousands of jobs that Obama blocked.”
“Thousands of jobs” are really not that many in a workforce of 153 million. But even that claim is wildly exaggerated. A State Department report found Keystone would create 3,900 direct jobs during the one- to two-year construction period, but it would only support 35 permanent jobs once it is up and running. It also would actually make gasoline more expensive because it would make it easier for oil to move from the Midwest to ports along the Gulf of Mexico and then on to ships for export. If the oil can be exported, then U.S. consumers have to buy it at the global benchmark price, rather than the current discount some drivers in the Midwest enjoy.
In light of all this — not to mention the fact that President Obama won reelection last year and Democrats control the Senate — you’d think Republicans might stop threatening to hold the economy hostage unless we approve Keystone. But they just can’t let it go.
Republicans love the Keystone XL pipeline. I don’t mean they love it in the boring, old, “we’re servants to the oil industry” way. If that were the case, then they would probably let go of their Keystone obsession, since even some of the companies that would ship oil via Keystone are now saying it’s not really so important. It’s more like the love a parent might hold for a child: It’s the feeling that you’ve discovered the most important thing in the world, and you’d do anything — even wreck the whole global economy, if necessary — to make sure it lives long and prospers.
Republicans considered making Keystone approval a condition of October’s debt-ceiling increase, and ultimately backed off. Polling showed that clear majorities of the public opposed GOP debt-ceiling brinksmanship the last two times they tried it. And, even though the public generally supports building the Keystone pipeline, Republicans will probably back off this time too.
Then, one day, some malignant industry will come up with a new object for the GOP’s affection.