The debt ceiling drama seems to be nearing its end, as the US House of Representatives passed legislation that would lift the debt ceiling in accordance with a deal reached last weekend between Joe Biden, the president, and Kevin McCarthy, the Republican speaker of the House. The Republicans have been fighting to force cuts in spending and/or eligibility for food stamps (Snap), Medicaid, childcare and pre-schools, education and grants for higher education.
By linking these and other provisions to the lifting of the debt ceiling, the Republicans tried to use the threat of default on the public debt to force Democrats to accept them. The legislation, which now goes to the Senate where it is expected to pass, did not satisfy most of their desires.
The worst abuse that Republicans managed to include will be suffered by the hundreds of thousands of poor people who will likely lose access to food assistance under the Snap program. Many are in poor health and will not be able to complete the work requirements that Republicans have insisted on imposing for people of age 50-54; others will lose benefits due to additional red tape.
There was also damage done by the fictitious narrative that Republicans were able to successfully promote about the “ticking time bomb” of the public debt. There is no bomb and if there were, it would not be ticking.
The relevant measure of our debt burden is how much we pay annually in net interest on the debt, as a share of our national income (or roughly, GDP). That number was 1.9% for 2022. That is not big, by any comparison. We averaged about 3% in the 1990s, while experiencing America’s then longest-running economic expansion.
The constant repetition of the “threat” posed by our national debt was a big win for Republicans, who are always looking to cut spending on social needs and safety nets; and more strategically important, to cut spending that could aid recovery from an economic downturn when Democrats are in power.
In the Great Recession (December 2007 to June 2009), Republicans fought against measures to stimulate an economic recovery, which were already too small as proposed by Democrats. By October 2010, unemployment was still at 9.4%. In the election a month later, Republicans gained 63 seats to take the House and six Senate seats.
The debt ceiling was used to threaten the Biden administration with a default on the public debt if they did not agree to Republican demands, mostly for spending cuts. The ceiling itself doesn’t affect new spending; it’s just holding up a chunk of the spending that our government is already obligated by law to carry out. In a democracy, this type of extortion should not be permitted.
But Republican power isn’t based on democracy; on the contrary, it’s become highly dependent on institutions and practices that most people, including experts, would consider undemocratic or anti-democratic. Republicans benefit enormously from the fact that 80% of senators are elected by about 50% of voters. And if that’s not slanted enough, there is the filibuster, which effectively requires a 60-vote majority to win almost any pro-democracy reforms. This includes changes that are needed even for the Senate as presently constituted: eg representation for Washington DC, which has more population than a couple of states. We are the only democracy in the world where people who live in our national capital city don’t have full voting rights.
Then there is voter suppression and gerrymandering, for both state and federal elections. These two methods of influencing election outcomes have gone hand-in-hand. Of course swing states are prime targets: recall that Republican presidents who ruled for 12 of the past 22 years came to power while losing the popular vote.
When Republicans win, they then use their power to stack the cards further in their favor. This includes packing the judiciary, where Republican judges advance their agenda.
Their decades-long struggle to control the judiciary reached its pinnacle with a 6-3 majority of the US supreme court, with five justices appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote.
The current Republican majority now “substitutes a rule by judges for the rule of law”, the dissenting justices wrote when that majority revoked the right to abortion last year.
Dozens of senators have described the supreme court as “captured” by “dark money” from Republican donors, including “rightwing billionaires”, and it is currently facing lost credibility as well as accusations of corruption.
If the Republicans had gotten all that they had included in their legislation to lift the debt limit, it would have reduced the public debt by less than one half of 1% next year.
This makes it even clearer that the debt ceiling fight was never really about debt reduction. It’s part of a vicious cycle in which political power is abused in order to consolidate a system that is increasingly undemocratic; and then further abused. The debt ceiling is just one part of that cycle, and should not have been negotiated; it needs to be abolished.
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