Are you celebrating the end of the debt ceiling crisis? You know, the predicted collapse of the U.S. economy triggered by the federal government defaulting on its debt because a 1917 law prohibits it from issuing debt beyond a level set in statute. That limit is currently $31.4 trillion.
The compromise announced over the weekend is a victory for both sides. Biden’s willingness to compromise with Republicans averted a default on federal debt. Republicans won restraints on spending and several other priorities, including reducing new funding for the IRS and imposing work requirements for many beneficiaries of the SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) program.
Politics can be a difficult, ugly process, but in the case of the Republican decision to use a confrontation on the debt ceiling to achieve several of its 2024 political priorities, it worked. Should that be celebrated? Should President Biden have been tougher in negotiations? Those are valid questions.
Thanks to the agreement, which is expected to be approved by Congress and signed by the president, the next debt ceiling crisis will not happen until 2025, after the next presidential election.
I am not celebrating the end of the “crisis” because it never was one. The lines drawn in the sand by both the White House and Mr. McCarthy were not non-negotiable, but political posturing. I knew that sometime just before the “deadline,” the estimated date on which new federal borrowing would be illegal, an agreement would be reached. I was right.
The concept of a “debt ceiling” is stupid. America borrows money to pay for federal programs and spending already authorized. That means that, given Congress’ authority to appropriate money and raise taxes, there is already a “control” over spending. A “debt ceiling” is not needed if Congress had the backbone to pay for what it wants to spend.
The waste of time spent by both the White House and Congress arguing about the debt ceiling is reminiscent of the 15-vote marathon the Republicans needed to elect a Speaker of the House. That circus was orchestrated by about a dozen right-wing crazies with a take-no-prisoners approach to governing. They are ready to stop Congress in its tracks to make a point on issues like “wokeness,” guns, border security, abortion, and now that a Democrat is in the White House, the federal debt. They are not ready, or should I say able, to work as members of a deliberative legislative body created to translate what the people want into government spending and policy.
It was the right-wing extremists who conditioned Kevin McCarthy’s election to the Speakership on a promise to take the debt ceiling vote “to the mat.” Because a compromise was reached, they failed. But they will be back the next time the federal debt approaches the “ceiling.” They will also be looking for other means to attempt to win or influence issues they are unable to win without extreme game-playing. Take, for example, Senator Tommy Tuberville ‘s refusal to allow a vote on the appointment of General Charles Brown, Jr. as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over the abortion issue.
I am waiting to see if Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) or Lauren Boebert (R-CO) attempt to remove Speaker McCarthy because he compromised with the Democrats. Donald Trump, who has advocated a default, is encouraging them.
Sadly, the compromise reached over the weekend will not eliminate future “debt ceiling crises.” In a sane world, Congress would see that use of the “debt ceiling” to leverage cuts in federal spending only makes Congress look stupid. In its simplest form, think of Congress agreeing to spending and later refusing to pay for it.
Representative Bill Foster (D-IL), and Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) have introduced the End the Threat of Default Act, legislation to repeal the statute that established a “debt ceiling.” Ideally, the legislation would pass, but that will not happen. The entire Republican caucus, even those who were troubled by the brinksmanship of Speaker McCarthy, prefers to keep the weapon of the debt ceiling.
Lest the debt ceiling fiasco be seen as the exclusive fault of Republicans, realize the real issue behind the “problem” of deficit federal spending is the refusal of both parties to support the type of tax increases needed for federal programs that enjoy broad bipartisan support. Republicans oppose all tax increases and enthusiastically voted in support of tax cuts for the wealthy. Democrats also oppose all tax increases except for those to be paid by the “super rich,” best understood to be someone other than 99.0 percent of us.
The Democrats’ tax policy fosters the misconception that significant expansions of federal programs can be enacted with no new taxes (meaning no new taxes except for the super-rich). That is dangerous. It turns Congress into a grab bag. It also encourages Republicans to oppose all tax increases and seek tax cuts for their friends whenever they have the power to do so.
So, please join me in not celebrating the end of the debt ceiling crisis. The can has been kicked down the road. We do not have to worry about a repeat for two years. Yippee.
J.E. Dean is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, and other subjects.