The Media Can’t Get Enough of the Debt Ceiling

The Media Can’t Get Enough of the Debt Ceiling

The Media Can’t Get Enough of the Debt Ceiling

The debt limit on government spending is an obsolete holdover from a century ago. But the political media can’t stop equivocating over it.


The debt limit on government spending was a jury-rigged response to the unforeseeable expenses of the United States’s entry into World War I, but it’s hard to resist the notion that it was actually designed to expose the studied inanity of journalistic discourse. For the century-plus that we’ve been saddled with the debt ceiling, it’s been formally raised more than 100 times—and most of those hikes have perversely increased long-term public debt, since they defer outstanding interest payments. What’s more, the legal rationale for maintaining the debt ceiling is iffy at best, since the public debt clause of the 14th Amendment stipulates that “the validity of the public debt of the United States…shall not be questioned,” while debt obligations of the defeated Confederacy were to be repudiated.

This uncontroversial historical backdrop should make it fairly straightforward to report on the ideological hijacking of the certification of the government’s outstanding debt for what it is: an effort to force unpopular and widely destructive cuts to public spending under threat of a government default. Lacking either the mandate or the political courage to make a case to the public for a regressive austerity program, congressional Republicans are resorting to hostage-taking, threatening to spark a global credit collapse and/or recession simply because they can.

Yet our mainstream political press resolutely professes not to see these plain facts, since the reality defies the patty-cake logic of both-sides equivalency and phony bipartisanship that functions as the catechism of the D.C. press corps. As the government officially breached the debt ceiling late last week, The New York Times promptly phoned in this pseudo-explanation: “The milestone of reaching the $31.4 trillion debt cap is a product of decades of tax cuts and increased government spending by both Republicans and Democrats. But at a moment of heightened partisanship and divided government, it is also a warning of the entrenched battles that are set to dominate Washington, and that could end in economic shock.”

All the requisite touchstones of fretful both-sides concern trolling are neatly distilled here. Readers are informed that, naturally, the debt ceiling’s approach was engineered by both major parties—but they don’t get told that the GOP’s opportunistic pivot to high austerity-mongering only happens when Democrats are in executive power. It would be a bit like the paper of record’s sports desk grudgingly taking note that footballs were deflated when both the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts were on the playing field in the 2015 AFC championship game and concluding that we can’t know what really happened, but clearly both teams must have been at fault. Then the Times sagely tells us that the baleful threat here comes from the amorphous forces of “heightened partisanship and divided government,” which bring with them the dread specter of “entrenched battles,” mysteriously landing us all in possible “economic shock.” These are held to be deviations from some never-specified golden mean of tranquil accord across the aisle—even though the genuine source of the pending debt confrontation is actually the intraparty struggle for power on the GOP side, which produced a speakership deal for Kevin McCarthy by compelling him to force a debt showdown at the behest of the party’s hard-right Freedom Caucus. When Donald Trump presided over a similarly divided Congress, he got clean votes to bypass the debt ceiling as he spent lavishly—but that species of divided government somehow doesn’t rate a mention when the congressional right goes into full extortion mode.

All this analytical bankruptcy happened on day one of the debt-ceiling psychodrama. By the following day, the Times had dug all the way into the anemic both-sides refrain. In its morning newsletter, correspondent German Lopez offers this absurdist breakdown:

The bad news: Democrats and Republicans are divided. House Republicans say they want to use a debt-limit increase—and the threat of default—as leverage to cut government spending. Top Democrats have likened the Republican stance to a hostage-taking situation. The sides can’t agree even on whether to negotiate.

A failure to agree even on whether to negotiate! In the world-building reveries of bipartisan governing, this is nothing short of a thoughtcrime. To get the rational assessment of why this lamentable pass has been reached—i.e., you don’t negotiate with terrorists—you have to consult Times op-ed columnists Paul Krugman and Jamelle Bouie, who are mercifully unfettered by the high-church presumptions of Beltway reporting. For his part, German offers a prim set piece from President Biden’s Senate past to demonstrate just how wide-ranging the lamentable partisan exploitation of the debt ceiling is. While Republicans have done the lion’s share of debt-ceiling hijacking, Lopez concedes, “Democrats, too, have used it as a political tool: In 2006, Joe Biden, then a senator, joined his Democratic colleagues in opposing a debt ceiling increase to protest the cost of tax cuts and the Iraq war.”

Of course, the key word here is protest: Biden’s 2006 stand was a symbolic one, and never came anywhere close to the prospect of a government default and a spiral into recession. But in the arch Timesian diagnostic manual of partisan equivalencies, these are the same tasteless transgressions—a vulgar downgrading of the public trust into a “political tool.” However, there’s a far more telling partisan distortion here that somehow again escapes the forensic notice of the paper of record: Biden’s 2006 position was a talking point promulgated by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, and duly fanned out across the right-wing mediasphere, during the 2021 debt-ceiling fracas. But the right’s manipulation of a credulous press in its own self-interest is never “partisanship” in the stigmatized Beltway usage of the term; if anything, it’s “balance.”

One is obliged to dwell on the self-induced myopia of the Times because of its outsize footprint in public discourse, but it’s far from the only offender. The Washington Post’s coverage of the debt showdown is scarcely better; in its lead dispatch, correspondent Jacob Bogage was forced to consider paths forward for the Biden White House, and deemed the 14th Amendment’s public debt clause “an obscure passage in the Constitution.” He went on to half-ruefully note that “some experts argue that clause makes it unconstitutional for the United States to default on its debt, or for the Congress to establish a debt limit. But that concept would surely face a legal challenge if the White House opted for it.”

Wouldn’t you know it? More regrettable conflict, and in the courts no less! Surely that can’t be good for the household gods of comity and civility lording over our Beltway pirouettes of power. In reality, of course, it’s the fucking debt ceiling itself, not the constitutional amendment ensuring equality and due process to all US citizens that’s an “obscure” contrivance. (Nor is an amendment to the Constitution a “passage” in the main body of the document, but that’s a sermon for another occasion.) Meanwhile, over at that bastion of liberal good sense, NPR, a report on the debt battle ended with the surreal lamentation that “for now, McCarthy is the only leader at the negotiating table.” Depicting McCarthy’s smash-and-grab mandate as speaker as an exercise in negotiation is much like calling Lindbergh-baby kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann a professional babysitter. Yet this is the through-the-looking-glass mindset of consensus-driven reporting in and around Washington. The only wonder is that it hasn’t brought the world economy down around our ears. Oh, wait—never mind.

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