Dead Polar Bears Beat Debt Ceiling — on the Congressional Agenda

Source: Alaska Image Library/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Bloomberg

A Polar bear and her cubs along the Beaufort Sea Coastline of Alaska.

The U.S. is scheduled to hit its statutory debt ceiling on Feb. 7 — this coming Friday — so it would stand to reason that Congress is going to spend the week focused on raising the debt limit, right?

Well, not exactly. Lawmakers are in agreement that it’s going to have to happen. They’re just not sure how. Or when.

So instead, the Senate will be taking up a farm bill that the House passed last week. It’s more than four months overdue. The House, meanwhile, has scheduled a big package of public lands bills, a measure dealing with water rights in California and a sportsmen’s omnibus.

That last one is a re-run of several bills that would expand recreational shooting on public lands, allow all states to issue electronic duck stamps (used for hunting permits and funding conservation efforts) and, in one provision, allow about 40 hunters who shot polar bears in Canada to import their trophies — heads, hides and in some cases the whole taxidermied bears — into the U.S.

Hunting polar bear isn’t cheap.

The Anchorage Daily News (which would know) put the cost of the polar bear hunts at $40,000 to $60,000. The bears were taken back when it was legal so to do. Once they were listed under the Endangered Species Act, those bears not already brought back were instantly frozen, legally, in Canada. You know how hunters and anglers mount 10-point bucks or 10-pound bass on the wall? This is the extreme version of that.

What does all that have to do with the debt limit, you may ask?

Well nothing. It has nothing to do with it.

And that’s exactly the idea. All these bills, while they have their own constituencies, proponents and opponents, also serve to buy lawmakers time to figure out how to raise the debt limit.

The debt limit is mostly a political problem and less a policy one. Lawmakers have already agreed to an omnibus spending bill that runs to September and would require — yes, require — the debt limit to be raised in order to fund it. The much-heralded bipartisan budget deal that runs to September 2015, that would necessitate a debt ceiling hike too.

Nobody, seriously nobody, has put forward in legislative text for a budget that balances tomorrow. At best, lawmakers are talking about balance in eight to 10 years or so. So debt limit hikes are going to be part of the situation in D.C. for the foreseeable future. Yet they’re also convenient political baseballs in an election year with which political opponents running on lowering spending can throw at incumbents. That goes for general R vs D elections in November as well as R vs R primaries in the spring and early summer.

House Republicans, who want something in exchange for raising the debt limit, spent half of last week at their annual retreat where a big topic of conversation was how to do it. There was some talk about tying the debt limit to rolling back a part of the Obamacare health care law that Republicans have taken to calling an insurance company bailout.

Given that President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats have said they’re not negotiating over the debt limit, North Carolina Republican Patrick McHenry said the Senate ought to raise it first — which would require several Senate Democrats up for re-election in red states (like North Carolina’s Kay Hagan) to go first on the vote that could be used against her politically.

It’s also, if nothing happens, a cataclysmic economic problem. The Treasury Department says its “extraordinary measures” of juggling to avert the limit can last until late February. Perhaps next week Congress will have a better idea of how to do it. Until then, expect a lot of talk on the House floor about dead polar bears.


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