Debt ceiling diehard in rural Virginia vows to ‘call Democrats’ bluff’

US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen sent shockwaves through Washington this week when she warned that the US government risks running out of money as soon as June 1 if Congress does not raise the debt ceiling.

But 150 miles south-west of the nation’s capital, in his largely rural district in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Republican congressman Bob Good is not worried about hitting the federal borrowing limit.

“I am not afraid of us reaching the debt limit because there would not be a default unless the Biden administration, Secretary Yellen, caused a default,” Good said in an interview this week after touring small businesses including a honey farm, a grain mill and a trout fish hatchery in his district, which covers a vast area of southern Virginia.

First elected to the US House of Representatives in 2020, Good, 57, is a self-described “biblical conservative” and a prominent member of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of rightwing Republicans who have pushed for any increase in the debt ceiling to be tied to steep spending cuts.

Good is a relatively unknown member of Congress. But like others on the rightwing of the Republican party, he has gained an outsized influence in the House of Representatives, where the GOP holds control of the chamber by a razor-thin margin after last year’s midterm elections.

The congressman shrugged off suggestions that a lengthy political battle over the debt ceiling could lead to market turmoil. In 2011, the last time the US government careened towards a default, S&P downgraded America’s triple-A credit rating before an eleventh-hour deal was reached.

“The markets will get jittery. Markets don’t like uncertainty. But we have got to be willing to stand under the pressure and call the Democrats’ bluff,” Good said. “[Democrats] will cave, and the Senate and president will pass and sign this bill if we just stand our ground.”

Carlton Ballowe, a local builder and chair of the Republican party in Nelson county — where Donald Trump beat Biden by five percentage points in 2020 — called the congressman a “marvellous” representative for the area.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy. His speakership still depends on the support of colleagues like Bob Good © J. Scott Applewhite/AP

“Federal spending is out of control . . . the number of programmes I think they should stop spending money on is too numerous and too varied to list,” said Ballowe.

“States have no rights at all, people have no rights at all, the federal government has expanded its power to be in control of everything.”

Good is also one of the more than dozen Republicans who withheld support for Kevin McCarthy in the California congressman’s protracted bid to become Speaker of the House earlier this year. In the end, Good voted “present” in the 15th round of voting that handed McCarthy the Speaker’s gavel.

McCarthy’s speakership still depends on the support of colleagues like Good. As part of the negotiations to secure the Speaker’s gavel earlier this year, McCarthy conceded to being subject to a no-confidence vote if just one member of Congress calls for it.

Now, Good is one of the loudest voices on Capitol Hill pushing McCarthy to “stand under pressure” and resist the White House’s demands for the debt ceiling to be raised without condition. The Biden administration has warned that failing to raise the debt ceiling from its current $31.4tn could lead to an unprecedented government default, with “catastrophic” consequences for the US and global economy.

McCarthy last week scored a major political victory when he secured the support of Good and others to pass through Congress a bill that would raise the debt ceiling by $1.5tn or through March 2024, whichever comes first.

Bob Good speaks against critical race theory and mask mandates at a school meeting in Cumberland County, Virginia
Bob Good speaks against critical race theory and mask mandates at a school meeting in Cumberland County, Virginia, in 2021 © Ryan M. Kelly/The Washington Post/Getty Images

But the bill — which passed the House with no Democratic support — also includes a lengthy list of steep spending cuts and Republican policy priorities that means it is dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled US Senate. Democrats say the bill would result in hundreds of thousands of lost jobs and shrink the US economy by more than $140bn.

Joe Biden has invited McCarthy and other congressional leaders — Democrats Chuck Schumer and Hakeem Jeffries, and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell — to a meeting at the White House on Tuesday to discuss the matter.

But Democrats and the White House continue to insist that the Republican House bill is not the foundation for a negotiation — and that Republicans need to agree to a “clean” debt ceiling rise and then have a separate conversation about budget cuts.

Good says that will not happen.

“No Republican wanted to raise the debt limit, but this is what it took in order to get an agreement,” Good said of the House bill. “The Senate needs to pass it, and the president needs to sign it, because if they don’t, then they are risking whatever consequence may come from not doing so.

“There is more than enough revenue coming in the Treasury to pay our obligations on our debt,” Good added, echoing many conservatives, who argue the Treasury can prioritise certain payments even after the current “extraordinary measures” run out.

“There is not really the catastrophic consequence that many . . . would have us believe.”

Analysts say Good faces few political risks in taking a hardline position on the debt ceiling or any other issue, given the character of his district, where mobile phone service is often hard to come by, and Confederate flags are still draped on the porches of many homes and family farms.

In 2020, the staunch social conservative ousted an incumbent Republican congressman by attacking him for officiating a same-sex wedding. In 2022, he was re-elected with just shy of 58 per cent of the vote.

“He can basically be as populist, and as much of a culture warrior, as he wants,” said J Miles Coleman of the non-partisan University of Virginia Center for Politics. “He is still probably going to be pretty safe.”

When asked about the looming debt ceiling crisis, local Republican chair Ballowe said it was “just a game of brinkmanship”.

“I don’t worry about it because there’s enough revenue coming in on an ongoing basis to service our debts and cover our hard expenses,” he added. “The only thing that is in jeopardy is discretionary spending, and that deserves a nice cut. So I don’t really see a downside.”

Others are more wary. The mill workers Good met this week said their politics were “very, very different” from those of the congressman, while one public employee in the county, who declined to give his name, noted with a wry smile that Good “represents the conservative folks real well”.

He added that for all of the congressman’s rhetoric, he hoped the two sides on the debt ceiling debate in Washington could “come to an agreement”, adding: “If they don’t, it would be a calamity.”

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