The Infinite Insanity of the Debt Ceiling


Everything about the debt limit vote is an utter disgrace. Everything.

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The debt ceiling is a yes-or-yes question, which is to say it's a pretty dumb question. Should we vote to affirm borrowing needs we already have? Yes. Should we vote to avoid an unnecessary crisis among our creditors? Of course. Should we vote to avoid a mandatory and immediate shutdown of 40% of the government? Sounds reasonable.

But in Washington, where nothing is easy, sometimes dumb begets dumb. The debt ceiling vote, which should not exist, exists. And so the debate to raise the debt ceiling, which should not exist, also exists.

It is said that the key to negotiations is being able to walk away from the table. That's what makes the debt ceiling "negotiations" so absurd. Nobody wants to leave the table. Everybody from the president down to Republican House leadership agrees the debt ceiling has to be raised. This isn't a negotiation, in any modern definition of the word negotiation. It's a consensus. But like Pavlov's dogs trained to associate ringing bells with food, Washington politicians are conditioned beyond cure to consider every upcoming vote a chance to be disagreeable.

So here we are, stuck with a yes-or-yes question, and one side is pretending, even threatening, that it might actually answer no.

Neither party has a monopoly on this madness. Yes, even President Obama voted against the debt ceiling in 2006. But the full picture is worse than you think. In the last four House debt ceiling votes tracked by Donald Marron at the Tax Policy Center, the majority party outvoted the minority 871-3. Think about that. That means less than one percent of the minority has voted for a bill that they actually want to pass! Some call debt ceiling votes a mandatory tax on the majority. You could just as easily call it a mandatory partisan fever on the minority. 

Just because the minority party is practically required to act foolishly on the debt limit, that doesn't make the GOP's current position any less foolish. Republicans are trying to attach another round of spending reductions to the upcoming vote, essentially holding America's credit hostage to enact cuts that amount to crumbs measured across a decade of debt. Should we make budget cuts -- and tax increases -- to reduce our scheduled debt pileup? Of course. But that debate will take months, and the fast-approaching debt limit is the worst possible arena to hold this partisan smackdown.

Two years ago, Republicans complained that Democrats were rushing the health care bill through Congress. In October 2009, Sen. Mitch McConnell called for a "real, multi-week debate that gives everyone on both sides an opportunity to freely amend [the health care law]." In December, he continued: "There is no justification for this blind rush -- except a political one, and that's not good enough for the American people."

If rushing health care through Congress was bad then, rushing budget reform against an artificial deadline (the debt ceiling is projected to hit in May or June) is worse. It is, in the proud tradition of Washington, both absurd and completely predictable. To review, this is a measure that should not exist, inspiring a debate that should not exist, jeopardizing a discussion that actually determines the future of the our country. Infinite insanity, indeed.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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