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Disarm debt threat

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Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell walks to the Senate floor after agreeing to a deal to avoid default and reopen the government last week.

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After Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, emerged from hiding last week to help negotiate an end to the debt crisis, he announced that Republican lawmakers would no longer use the same kind of extortion to get their way.

“We’re not going to do this again in connection with the debt ceiling or with a government shutdown,” he told National Review magazine

If Mr. McConnell is serious about improving his party’s reputation and ending government by threat, there’s an easy first step: Establish a mechanism to prevent using the debt ceiling as a weapon.

In fact, such a mechanism exists; the minority leader invented it in 2011. It’s called the McConnell Rule, and it’s time to make it permanent before the current agreement runs out on Feb. 7.

This rule, which was used in last week’s settlement and other agreements for the past two years, allows the President to raise the debt ceiling, then gives Congress a chance to disapprove it. If Congress passes a disapproval measure, the President can veto the legislation.

The two chambers would then each need a two-thirds majority to override the veto and prevent the debt limit from rising. That is politically unattainable and is likely to remain so.

The debt ceiling may have reached the end of its useful life last week, after President Obama and Senate Democrats refused to negotiate and Republican leaders showed they would back down before letting the Treasury default.

It’s a World War I-era contrivance that was never used to extract concessions until the Tea Party got hold of it in 2011. It ought to be formally abolished.

The ceiling doesn’t limit the debt, which is determined only by the amount Congress spends and takes in. Its only purpose is to give voters the illusion that Congress is acting as a responsible steward over borrowing.

But Congress loves illusions. If it insists on preserving this one, it should make sure that no fanatical political-party faction can use the limit to threaten the economy with the disaster of default.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) has proposed writing the McConnell Rule into permanent law. If Republicans want to hear a huge sigh of national relief, they’ll take him up on it.

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