McCarthy pushes US to brink of default to appease energy donors — but Biden has an ace up his sleeve.

Carl Pope
4 min readMay 23, 2023


“This article earlier published in Salon

Republican House Speaker McCarthy has, with patent insincerity, offered a new version of H.R. 1, an energy bill originally designed to padlock America’s future to expensive, unreliable, and lethal fossil fuels. McCarthy has now harnessed H.R. 1 to the GOP concept that defaulting on America’s debts is somehow an exercise in fiscal prudence. This lethal duo, the speaker is betting, can somehow, be sold both to his extremist right-wing fringe — who really want a default and hate clean energy — along with just enough 2024 voters who like clean energy and fear default — if concealed in a cloak of fiscal prudence and pocketbook affordability.

What was once — but no longer resembles — the party of Lincoln has bet its prospects on the premise that the Rail Splitter’s memorable aphorism — “you cannot fool all of the people all of the time” — no longer applies.

H.R. 1, the legislative vehicle McCarthy has crafted to embody his new persona, would accelerate America’s drive towards an unaffordable, climate-destroying, and toxic future based on coal, oil and gas — all more costly than American researched, developed and deployed renewable wind and solar power. If the Biden Administration refuses to cave to this blackmail, the Republicans have pledged to push America into an unconstitutional and economically devastating refusal to pay the government’s bills.

McCarthy and the GOP are willing to destroy the “full faith and credit” of the United States government to pay off their fossil fuel campaign donors — in the face of ample evidence that their refusal to allow the U.S. government to pay the debts the GOP and Trump voted to assume risks the economic security of millions of American families. They embrace the idea of turning America’s energy future over to a handful of profiteering oil speculators and their Russian and Saudi allies.

The heart of H.R. 1 is unraveling the Biden Administration’s commitments to cheaper, cleaner energy: incentives for electric vehicles, friendly tax treatment of renewable power, support for homeowners modernizing their energy systems, tax incentives for businesses driving the U.S. to the front of the clean energy revolution.

These reactionary measures would strip American entrepreneurs of the reliable investment playing field which could restore U.S. energy leadership around technologies — wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, advanced batteries and green hydrogen — which American engineers developed, and American taxpayers funded — only to surrender the reaping of these onrushing economic powerhouses to China, Europe and Asia.

All of this in the name of “fiscal restraint” — by which today’s GOP means sacrificing the nation’s reputation for paying its bills, in violation of an oath which every member of McCarthy’s GOP caucus took to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Section 4 of the 14th Amendment seems reasonably clear: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law … shall not be questioned.” There is a debt ceiling provided — only debts required to pay for programs funded by Congress may be paid. But these must not only be paid, and on time, they cannot even be “questioned.”

Read that again: “Shall not be questioned.” Which foreign and domestic enemies are doing this month’s questioning? Sadly, it’s Lincoln’s party in the House.

The House GOP caucus is enamored with either “textualist” or “originalist” approaches to understanding the Constitution. Both judicial theories insist, roughly, that the Constitution means today what it meant back then. Nevertheless, the modern Washington establishment — of both parties — has embraced the notion that a refusal to pay Congressionally authorized obligations might, somehow, not “question” “the validity of the public debt.”

Since today’s D.C. establishment indulges the fantasy that the debt ceiling hasn’t always been unconstitutional, we are told we should assume the matter is settled. These insiders assert that President Biden should violate his clear constitutional obligation and refuse to pay our bills. Instead, he can simply — well, promise not to pay them — and hope the White House and Congress find a solution. But on this issue, it’s hard to imagine that either a textualist (“What part of ‘shall not be questioned’ means ‘but need not need be paid?’”) or an originalist (“Which author of the 14th Amendment thought the Congress could going forward refuse to pay Civil War or other debts?) would find an honest pathway that renders the debt ceiling constitutional.

So if the Democrats in Washington simply act like Lincoln and insist that the Constitution means what it says; that the public cannot be permanently fooled; and keep in place the visionary low price, clean energy future that the Biden Administration has put in place, the United States can reap cheap energy, clean air, climate progress and security — and maintain the strength of our reputation and economy as a country that does, indeed, pay its bills.

If we don’t grab this opportunity to call out the GOP fraud, things get worse. H.R. 1’s debt ceiling lasts for only a year. Congress must again extend the commitment to pay the government’s bills after March 31, 2024. And H.R. 1 does nothing, on balance, to reduce our long-term deficit. So the far-right will be bound to hold the nation hostage once again if McCarthy prevails this year.

Biden has the ace of spades in his hand: the blatant unconstitutionality of the debt ceiling and the callous insincerity of his opponents. And he has no other reliable pathway. He should play his strongest card. The survival of our civilization might depend on it. And it’s the law.



Carl Pope

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, former executive director & chairman Sierra Club and Senior Climate Advisor to Michael Bloomberg