National Default: the action-packed event of the summer.
By: Ezra Levin, Indivisible Co-Founder
It’s the nerdiest version of Mission Impossible — the stopwatch starts, and the clock ticks down the final seconds before the global economic explosion. To defuse the bomb, every House Democrat and a handful of House Republicans have to link arms and jump together at the same time. Beads of sweat form on your brow as you look nervously at the clock and then back to the whip list and then back at the clock. Make it through, and you’ve averted a global depression. Fail, and the economy goes boom.
This movie is called a “Operation Discharge Petition,” and let’s be honest — even during a Hollywood writers strike, nobody’s greenlighting this script. But nobody has to — this is a real life political negotiation happening right now. And President Biden just gave his best Tom Cruise impersonation last week. But in this movie, we’ve all got a role to play.
Keen observers read the tea leaves in the President’s visit last week to a little-known congressman’s turf in New York’s 17th congressional district. In 2020, the district voted for President Biden by more than 20 points, and for the first time in 40 years, elected a Republican to congress last year.
Freshman Republican Mike Lawler isn’t a household name. He’s not the chair of any committee. He’s not a regular talking head on Fox News. He votes with Marjorie Taylor Greene nearly 90% of the time and has backed Republican congressional leadership every step of the way so far this year — but he takes pains to appear like a “reasonable” Republican locally.
So who cares about Mike Lawler? Joe Biden cares about Mike Lawler. And this brings us back to that wonky discharge petition strategy.
Earlier this month, the New York Times reported on a clever strategy secretly undertaken by House Democrats to defuse the debt ceiling. The discharge petition allows you to circumvent the Speaker — you don’t need Kevin McCarthy’s support if you’ve got a discharge petition. After introducing a discharge petition, supporters have to get a majority of congress to sign their names to it. If they succeed, they can force the Speaker to schedule a vote on the bill.
The discharge petition dropped this week, and so the process of getting a majority of congress onboard is in full swing. Already almost every Democrat has signed on. But that’s not enough. We need five Republicans to join to hit the majority we need. These five will probably come from districts like Lawler’s — vulnerable GOP districts like the 18 across the country that Biden won in 2020 and will likely win again in 2024.
As we careen towards a June 1st economic catastrophe, that’s why Biden was in Lawler’s district the day after he sat down with Kevin McCarthy in the White House, praising Lawler as “the kind of Republican I was used to dealing with. He’s not one of these MAGA Republicans.” Biden doesn’t want the economic bomb to explode, and Lawler doesn’t want his political life cut short. And that’s why Lawler was nodding approvingly in the front row at Biden’s event instead of commenting on Trump’s CNN town hall.
So far, neither Lawler nor any other Republican — regardless of how supposedly moderate they claim to be — has stopped backing up McCarthy. But that may now change. Today, McCarthy walked away from the negotiation table. As of this writing, he’s not even trying to reach a deal. He’s the villain in the movie who ties up the hero, sets the bomb, and leaves the room. The question for Lawler and the other vulnerable GOP members is whether they stand by and let it all go boom.
They are not invulnerable to the political fallout from that blast. Biden’s visit to New York’s 17th was a not-so-subtle reminder to Lawler and his fellow vulnerable GOP representatives that there will be real political consequences for empowering the right-wingers in their party. We are watching their role in this fiasco — and we will hold them accountable for it.
We need more of this pressure with increasingly less subtlety as we near economic implosion. Specifically, to get out of this crisis we need four things to happen now and in the coming days:
- Unite. Every Democrat should sign the discharge immediately — and almost every single one has. Only two have declined: Ed Case of Hawaii and Jared Golden of Maine. This is terrible policy and politics. These two members are doing their part to empower Marjorie Taylor Green at the expense of a bipartisan solution to the crisis. They need to get with the program.
- Circumvent McCarthy. Biden was smart to go to Lawler’s district. He should do more of that. In person, remotely, and behind closed doors the White House should ignore McCarthy and go straight to the GOP members in vulnerable districts. They — not McCarthy — are the ones who will make or break the deal.
- Play hardball. Biden has a strong play in his back pocket. Many Members of Congress are calling on Biden to use the 14th amendment to scrap the default fight altogether. Biden himself has said he’s considering it. Good. If the option is between acquiescing to an extremist and intransigent Republican Party or imploding the economy, Biden should choose the third option: unilaterally defusing the bomb.
- Apply pressure locally. Remember: at the end of the day, all Representatives answer to their constituents. All constituents regardless of whether they live in a blue, purple, or red district ought to be loudly telling their representative to sign this discharge petition, and cheering them on when they do.
That last point isn’t a feel-good civics lesson — it’s a hard-nosed political action that works. Look no further than…Mike Lawler. Earlier this year, when it still appeared that House Republicans would make a big play for cutting Social Security and Medicare, constituents of Lawler’s rallied outside his office, demanding he commit to no cuts to Social Security or Medicare.
The ragtag team of constituents did good work. Their action was unexpected enough that it made local and national press. The constituent action forced Lawler to issue a clear statement committing to oppose any cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Ultimately when the GOP put together their partisan offer, it contained a whole host of toxic, harmful, unpopular policies, but direct cuts to Social Security or Medicare benefits were notably absent.
Pressure worked. And it can work again right now. That’s why Indivisible kicked off a national week of action all across the country starting today. Already we’ve seen local constituents in many of these vulnerable districts show up and make clear that they expect their Representatives to stop backing the McCarthy / Greene hostage-taking coalition. The more pressure the better — these representatives need to know that they can’t hide from public scrutiny; that they will be held accountable for their actions here.
I’d say grab your popcorn, but constituents can and should be part of the show. Those with supportive Democratic representatives should demonstrate support for defeating the hostage-takers. Those with GOP representatives have a time-limited opportunity to directly impact national political strategy. We’re all writing the ending together.
One way or another, this is sure to be a major summer blockbuster, coming soon to a congressional district near you.