Republicans and Democrats are at it again. Republicans refuse to negotiate on legislation to raise the national debt ceiling, currently at $31.4 trillion, without a commitment to cut federal spending. Democrats accuse Republicans of reckless brinkmanship that could lead to an inability of the federal government to pay its bills. If that happens, Democrats say, the country could be thrown into economic chaos.
Outside Washington the impasse on the debt ceiling is receiving little attention. For the last week, I have heard more about Lisa Marie’s funeral, the NFL playoff games, George Santos, and the fourth batch of Biden classified documents, the ones found in an FBI search of the President’s Delaware home. Even on MSNBC, there was more coverage last weekend on abortion rights than on the debt crisis.
What gives? One explanation is that, unlike “high-rated” trending news, the debate on the debt ceiling is complicated. It is hard to explain objectively without vilifying one side or the other. If you add an attempt to explain why Congress has to vote on a “debt ceiling increase,” it gets even more challenging. Most news organizations punt, deferring coverage of the issue until the debate is resolved.
Another explanation, one that I believe has more merit, is that the public does not believe the debt ceiling crisis is a crisis. Even those of us who have passionate opinions on the debate believe that, eventually, the impasse will be broken. We do not believe that House Republicans insisting on spending reforms will really allow the U.S. to miss interest payments. The Democrats, led by President Biden, refuse to negotiate. They believe that the Republicans will fold and that an agreement of some sort—one supporting more federal spending—will be reached.
The public, meanwhile, not only is not weighing in, but they are also not even watching. Have you written to our intrepid Congressman, Andy “Handgun” Harris, to ask him to work towards a compromise? I have not. Given Harris’ extreme views on federal spending (generally speaking, he is against it), writing him is a waste of time. But how about our two Democratic Senators, Van Hollen and Cardin? I bet you have not written them either.
The problem, in my view, is that our confidence in Congress as a forum to resolve tough issues is at a low level. We do not trust either side to work in good faith with the other. Most of us would add that one party or the other is dishonest, corrupt, or simply crazy. A good case in point is an Elizabeth Warren editorial written this week in the Boston Globe. The Massachusetts Senator calls Republican opposition to raising the debt limit a “con job.” She suggests there would not even be a debt ceiling debate without Republican “tax giveaways” to the rich and “huge corporations.” The heart of her solution is to tax the rich, not only on income but assets.
Warren may be right, to a degree. But does her rhetoric contribute to a compromise?
Logically, there is a middle ground between freezing the debit limit at $31.4 trillion and raising the debt limit indefinitely. Did you know the national debt was “only” $16.394 trillion in 2013, less than 10 years ago? Maybe an ever-increasing national debt is a problem. And on the other side, given current national needs, can federal spending be frozen in an inflationary environment without increasing taxes?
Until some political leader steps forward to put a stop to the current posturing on both sides, the country will inch closer and closer to a true fiscal crisis. Believe Treasury Secretary Yellen when she says that the “extraordinary measures” she is taking to continue to meet federal debts will not be possible after May.
President Biden should not refuse to negotiate with House Republicans, regardless of his conclusion that they are not ready to negotiate in good faith. Similarly, some courageous Republican, maybe one who does not plan to run for re-election next year, should file a “motion to vacate” the Speaker’s chair if McCarthy does not tell the Democrats he wants a compromise. If Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz can bully McCarthy, why can’t other Republicans?
Congress urgently needs to rebuild its credibility as the forum for the resolution of the Nation’s problem. This current debt ceiling crisis is a good place to start.
So, to sum up, why is an agreement on the debt ceiling so hard to reach? The answer is that neither side is working to reach a compromise because the public, having lost confidence in Congress to govern in good faith, is not demanding that both parties quit playing games and get the job done.
J.E. Dean is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, and other subjects.