How the Debt Ceiling Crisis Reveals the Dynamics of the Larger American Crisis

This piece ran in newspapers in mid-May, 2023


This crisis over the debt ceiling illustrates the defects of each of America’s two major parties.

The problem with the Republicans is visible if we look through a moral lens at their threatening to fail to raise the debt ceiling – threatening to make the government of the United States fail to pay its bills – unless their demands are met.

(Until the Republicans started using this extortive technique – and only during Democratic presidencies — both parties had always automatically and painlessly raised the ceiling.)

The defect of the Democrats has been a blindness to the nature of the Republican conduct, with a resultant failure to help the American people understand what that conduct reveals.

The last time the Republicans attempted to use the debt ceiling to extort concessions was in 2011. That was the same year that I launched only campaign for public office. What led me to run for Congress against the Republican incumbent, Bob Goodlatte, precisely because I’d lost hope that the Democrats would ever say what I thought needed to be said to the nation about the unprecedented thing the once-respectable Republican Party had become.

The debt ceiling issue was but one small illustration of that.

I used the platform given a major party nominee for Congress to describe the Republican threat in terms as accurate and impactful as I could.

I included, but went beyond, what I heard other Democrats explaining to the public—that raising the debt ceiling isn’t about spending but about paying our bills. (Spending is determined in the passing of a budget.)

(But I also used that Republican lying – when they claimed they were trying to cut down on excessive spending – to expose the more general problem of Republican dishonesty: that was a core reason for my running, as reflected by my campaign slogan, “Truth. For a change.”)

But what I especially stressed was the stark moral implications of the Republicans’ threat to compel America to default on its obligations, and throw the American and world economies into a calamitous tailspin:

The Republicans’ threat — in 2011, and again now –amounts to holding a gun to the head of the nation and snarling at the people’s other elected representatives:

“If you don’t meet my demands, I will blow America’s head off.”

That image captures the essential truth of the matter, even though, of course, there is no literal “gun,” nor any “head” to be blown off. Although “blowing up” the economy of the nation and the world – resulting in hardship and dislocation for millions of Americans and billions worldwide – might seem abstract to people, that kind of hostage-taking is just as ugly. And that image of “blow America’s head off” helps bring home the reality of the situation at the visceral level at which people are more readily moved.

It’s an ugly reality. Ugly not only in the method (threatening to shoot off the head of the beloved country). But also ugly in its goal: to impose their will — on other legitimate elected representatives of the American people — by means of coercion.

In a democracy, the only legitimate way for a party to have its way is persuading the people to grant that party enough power to execute its will. Threatening to hurt the country in order to compel legitimate representatives of the people to do what they don’t want to do is an attack on the people as well as the constitutional order.

Because many people don’t attend to politics well enough to see what’s happening, and to make the necessary judgments, when one party resorts to illegitimate hostage-taking, the other party must expose the implications of such destructive conduct.

Fortunately, in some respects, the Democrats have made progress since 2011. This time, the Democrats seem determined not to yield to the blackmail. (They seem to have learned the lesson that paying ransom only encourages further kidnappings.)

But the Democrats are still not showing the American people what this crisis exposes about what this Republican Party has become.

For the good of the nation, here’s what I would like to see the Democrats do.

At the end of the process, the President should step in and unilaterally protect the nation from catastrophe. It can reasonably be argued that this is his constitutional duty: the Constitution itself declares that “the good faith and credit of the United States shall not be questioned.” Also, the President is obliged to see that the laws are carried out, and the spending that Congress passed previously is such a law.

(To which can be added that adding this extra layer to the spending process has gone from being merely superfluous – no such additional step required by our states or by nations that are our peers – to being downright destructive, as it has been transformed from a formality to a weapon hostage-takers can use to illegitimately impose their will.)

But before President Biden resolves this crisis in that way, I’d like to see the Democrats shine a bright spotlight on the ugly truth this Republican threat exposes:

Any political party that would threaten to blow America’s head off if their demands are not met is the opposite of patriotic.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *