As Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich never followed through with his threat of government default, but he laid the groundwork for the hostage-style tactics surrounding the debt ceiling that Republicans are using now.
On NOW with Alex Wagner Monday, Alex took viewers on a tour through the history of debt ceiling negotiations, to dig up the origins of the hostage-style tactics that the GOP is using right now. The potential to hold America’s debt limit for ransom has always existed, but traditionally, neither party was willing to play with fire.
Roughly half of the 53 debt ceiling hikes since 1978 have been “clean,” and for awhile, even the negotiations that included broader fiscal deals weren’t toxic standoffs. In 1987, Democrats locked horns with President Reagan over the nation’s borrowing limit. But instead of using their control of both chambers to exert maximum leverage, they passed a bipartisan debt ceiling increase that attracted 105 House Republicans.
This began to change in 1995 with then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The New York Times reported on September 22nd of that year, “…it was highly unusual for a high Government leader to suggest, as Mr. Gingrich did today, that default on Government payments was not beyond the pale.” This was the moment the GOP weaponized the debt ceiling, with Gingrich blatantly suggesting he would allow the government to default on its debt if President Clinton did not give in to Republican budget demands.
But Gingrich did not deploy the debt ceiling weapon. On February 1st, 1996, weeks before the debt ceiling deadline, he and Republican leaders penned a letter to President Clinton pledging to raise the borrowing limit “in a manner acceptable to both you and the Congress.”
Now fast forward to what’s currently happening in Washington. The fringe group of House Republicans that has a grip on Speaker John Boehner and the GOP caucus are now fully prepared to act on the threat of default. They’re ready to deploy the weapon. Some congressmen, like Florida’s Ted Yoho, even appear to welcome a government bankruptcy.
Watch the video above for an in depth look at how the terms of debt ceiling negotiations fundamentally shifted since Gingrich’s threat in 1995.