If you haven’t heard, the United States government just hit its debt ceiling – it’s borrowed as much as it can. Sort of. The Treasury Department has actually bought some time with some good old fashioned financial finagling. Unfortunately, a number of media outlets are massively mischaracterizing the issue.
The problem at hand is pretty straightforward: Republicans want to impose new spending restrictions that would make it much harder to have a working federal government. They also want to force cuts to Social Security and Medicaid. Their demands are largely unacceptable and would cause real harm to the American public.
In other words – Republicans are holding the global economy hostage and threatening to blow the whole thing up unless their demands are met, by using a facade of fiscal responsibility – when in reality allowing the United States to default is the least responsible fiscal decision imaginable.
However, in their ongoing quest to appear “neutral” and “balanced,” some media outlets are saying that the damage will be done by the deficit ceiling fight itself, not by the Republican push to default on our loans. Here’s CNN blaring that “Every American could feel the pain of Washington’s next showdown.” And here’s CBS Morning warning about a “dangerous standoff.” A piece from Bloomberg uses the subheading that “The political fight has the potential to spook markets across the globe, adding to the economic turmoil facing US investors.”
Beyond being wrong, this claim is both disingenuous and dangerous. Those headlines all make it sound like the reason to worry is the presence of more Congressional bickering and Washington gridlock. In reality, one party is trying to force deeply unpopular austerity measures onto the public. (Nearly all) Democrats are certainly fighting back*, but they aren’t adding obstructions to the process but, at least in this case, the Democrats’ fighting introduces no additional danger to the clash. Indeed, Democrats are fighting for the status quo, i.e., the continued implementation of the bipartisan Omnibus spending bill that passed Congress LAST MONTH and mandates spending through the end of September of this year (i.e., past the debt ceiling). It’s been truly startling at how willing the media has been to shed its predisposition for the status quo just so they can hold Republicans to no standard at all.
Why does this misrepresentation matter? The idea that the contest between parties itself is the problem implies that if Democrats just stopped resisting Republicans’ push to slash spending, the danger would be averted, which is clearly not the case at all. That would only heighten the risk of default, by leaving the federal government without the funds to carry out its mandate and responsibilities to the public.
The false equivalency between Republicans’ crusading for spending cuts and Democrats’ push to actually fund the government (and not destroy the global financial system) also obscures a more relevant story – the fact that the debt ceiling is quite possibly illegal. First established during World War I and regularly weaponized by austerity-minded Republicans over the past dozen years, the debt ceiling is part of a legal framework allowing the Treasury to take on debt to fund federal government spending. But it’s not clear that the debt ceiling accords with the constitution. For one thing, the 14th Amendment includes a clause saying the validity of any debts the U.S. incurred “shall not be questioned.” For another, there’s a good case to be made that the President is legally obligated to disburse funds as required by the budget, regardless of any quibbling about maxing out the debt limit.
Why? Because the spending authorized by Congress and signed into law by the president was authorized more recently and more specifically than the debt ceiling, and in law, conflicts between laws are resolved in favor of the more recent and more specific law.
Sometimes there are nuances and good points on both sides of a debate. Sometimes balanced coverage is a necessity. But other times, there’s one party sowing chaos and one trying to protect people, the economy, and the world. Horse race politics coverage may have a place, but this is not it. The basic truth is that there’s no danger from a “showdown.” There is, however, a lot of danger from reactionaries who take such a disturbed pleasure in making Americans’ lives harder that they’re willing to hold the entire globe hostage. The media needs to do its job and inform people about the real risks they’re facing, not try to get cute trying to make the whole thing into an Aaron Sorkin-esque drama.
* Democrats who spent this week in the United States. The Davos class of recent and current Democrats… not so much.