The Debt Ceiling Crisis: Still Festering Only Days Before A Default

One week before the U.S. will otherwise defaults on its bonds, the Speaker of the House and the President have no agreement that would increase the national debt limit.  

Not only have these principals reached no agreement, they have no way to ensure that the details get hammered into a legislation in time for a default-avoiding vote, or, even if that works, that legislators of their respective parties get the deal through.

It shouldn’t be necessary, but a piece by think tank leader Richard Fontaine sketches the breadth and depth of the disaster that a default would trigger.  The only point Fontaine misses is the small but real chance of an immediate and total collapse of financial and economic activity – and the overwhelming degree to which that would make everything else worse.

Fontaine does reinforce the point that a default would cast even greater doubts on the capacity of a free people to govern themselves.  This would not only serve the Chinese and the Russians in their geopolitical ends, but undermine our own conviction in our own system.  

Of course the biggest problem lies in our partisan polarization; even the mainstream media can point to the extremes in the two parties as the major obstacles to a deal.  The incompetence that a default would expose should be made clear now.  It is in our inability to choose leaders who are not beholden to their parties’ extremists.

We do have people seeking clever dodges – but one that manipulates legislative rules is a long shot and extends the urge to fight over procedures, while the other involves assertions about the Constitution, which only furthers the trend of contesting our basic legal tenets.  Both amount only to tactics in our already self-undermining polarized politics.  

Right now, the question is: can the non-extremists among us, presumably a silent (shouted down?) majority, push the “leaders” to just cut a deal?  Are there not 250 members of the House and 65 Senators who recognize that avoiding default should come way before any of their partisan stipulations?

One answer is that there are not, and there is ample evidence for that answer.  In that case we are in trouble like the nation hasn’t seen since the Civil War.  Another answer is that some group of Representatives and Senators from both parties find a short formulation for a deal, round up those 250 Reps and 65 Senators, and push it as their emergency initiative.

The proposal has to be short, simple, and roughly balanced, so that everyone can say they compromised, everyone can digest the contents quickly, and a consensus of the nation can voice support in the polls and on social media.

Perhaps it would look something like, yes, a rise in the debt ceiling, good for ten years by OMB estimates, on the one hand.  On the other, we need a short formula that would exact pain now from a wide range of programs, and that would open the question of long term entitlements.  One could imagine a three-part concept.  Start with a two percent cut in pay for legislators, President, VP and Cabinet Secretaries; then impose an 8% Social Security Tax on amounts above the current $160,200 maximum taxable income; and finally cut all discretionary spending by one half of one percent in FY 2024, across the board and for that year only. 

It shouldn’t take more than a day or two for all the budget mavens to find an actual formula, so long as the priority is to avoid default, and not to preserve anyone’s political monuments.  The real question will be – do we have leaders other than the two parties’ titular heads, who can mount such an initiative?

Or will the President and the Speaker actually figure this one out?  

If we fall into the chaos that does loom, the recovery will have to start with the basics, of what Americans believe we are.  That answer will only start with a re-awakening of awareness of our national self-conception in 1776.  

If somehow we do find a deal, and somehow even keep away from this precipice for a few more years, we will still need to revitalize a national center, to keep the politics of polarization from just bringing us back.  That too can only start when we care more about our founding tenets than the self-serving tropes of our political factions. 


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