Once more, the bizarre Washington debt ceiling ritual ends in a bad deal. The mainstream media and establishment pundits hail it as a revival of the “vital center” over what The New York Times called a “far right and hard left revolt.” While relief about avoiding debt default is understandable, celebration of this wretched concoction is preposterous.
The deal—like much of the Biden presidency—is not as bad as feared. Yet every change reflects the poisonous priorities of the Republican right. The debt ceiling is not repealed; it is simply kicked down the road to after the election. The bill does little to reduce federal budget deficits but succeeds in once more elevating—and distorting—the importance of debt and deficits, at a time when the dollar is still strong, and the country faces far more pressing challenges.
What cuts there are come in all the wrong places. Our bloated military budget—still higher than those of the next nine nations combined, and the biggest source of waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal government—will continue to rise. At a time of obscene inequality, nothing is done to reverse the perverse tax cuts handed out to the rich and corporations over the past decades. Instead, a symbolic cut in funding for the Internal Revenue Service assures wealthy tax scofflaws continued impunity while avoiding the taxes they owe. Nothing is done to curb the blatant looting of Medicare by private insurance companies through so-called Medicare Advantage schemes.
Instead, the target for cuts is, of course, domestic discretionary spending—the small portion of the budget that covers everything the government does outside of war, the military, and Social Security and Medicare and other guaranteed programs. Yet nothing is more apparent than after a conservative era spanning nearly half a century, the United States has badly starved investments in everything from basic infrastructure, clean water, education, a basic safety net, and domestic R&D to diplomacy and efficient governance. The US has more military bases than embassies abroad. It has smart missiles and makes raising a child virtually unaffordable for all but the affluent. This deal won’t do much—but what it does heads in the wrong direction.
The US faces staggering challenges: catastrophic climate change, pandemics and a debilitated public health system, debilitating inequality and corruption, declining life expectancy and a broken health care system—and more. To the extent this deal addresses any of these, it makes them a bit worse.
It is also a deep distortion to paint the dissent on the right and the left as somehow equivalent. The zealots on the right oppose the deal because it is not ruinous enough. They demand deeper cuts in domestic investment, higher spending on the bloated military, more tax breaks and regulatory rollback for the rich and corporations. Some made it clear they were ready to have the US default on its obligations to get their way.
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While making it clear that they would not allow the US to default, progressives opposed the deal for its distorted priorities, and misleading miseducation of Americans.
Sadly, the mainstream media largely reinforces those distortions. The Washington Post editorial hails the deal as a “major achievement” because it represents “compromise,” praising the “pragmatic” center of both parties while scorning “purist ideological arguments of their right and left wings.” But compromise for the sake of folly is not virtue.
Establishment columnists like the Post’s David Ignatius were even more rapturous, painting the agreement as emblematic of a “broad, bipartisan political center” that can “make deals that solve problems,” as opposed to “progressive Democrats” who “don’t seem to like that cooperative spirit.”
The only “problem” solved by this deal is the ridiculous and self-made threat to blow up the economy represented by threatening to default on the debt. Otherwise, the deal, if anything, makes our real problems marginally worse. Ignatius argues in favor of “trimming federal spending” because the “ever growing federal debt” poses a threat to the nation’s financial security (whatever that means). He offers no evidence to support this conservative shibboleth.
He says Democrats should “plant their flag as the party of fiscal responsibility, ready to raise taxes on wealthy Americans, cut pork-barrel defense spending and reform entitlements.” Ironically, it is progressive Democrats who call for raising taxes on wealthy Americans, cutting the Pentagon bloat, and moving to an affordable health care system—not the self-proclaimed centrists of the “Problem Solvers Caucus.” Ignatius celebrates those who have sabotaged efforts to roll back tax breaks for the rich, want to lard more money on the Pentagon and would make health care less affordable.
The substance of this deal is indefensible. Democrats would have been wise to follow the leadership of Representative Pramila Jayapal, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, making their opposition clear and forcing Republicans to provide the bulk of the votes for the measure, providing only the minimum number needed to avoid default. That at least would have made it clear that the deal’s misplaced priorities represent the ruinous views of today’s Republican Party, not those of the Democrats. One thing is clear: If this is the “triumph” of a vital center, that center is exhausted, bereft of ideas, decency and common sense.