In a democracy, governing is messy. Opposing parties have to find agreement, elaborate together difficult compromises, no one gets everything they want, it is hard work, takes time and creates frustration, but politicians who want to accomplish any agenda know that such an arduous process is essential in a functioning democracy. If there are only two parties, and they are so far apart in ideology and have such animosity towards each other that they do not even talk, democracy cannot function. The USA of 2023 is perilously close to this latter, dangerous situation, much of the Republican Party and some in the Democratic Party are principally motivated by dislike, or even hatred, of the other side. In such an environment, what happens if an external set of events occurs that could lead to a disasterous outcome threatening the very fiber of the nation unless the two opposing sides can work together?
Such is the setting for the events we have been witnessing around the debt ceiling crisis in Washington.
The debt ceiling was set up during WWI by the US Congress as a mechanism to make managing government debt more efficient and for decades, every time government borrowing approached the debt ceiling, Congress would without difficult increase it. However, in recent times, the Party in opposition but which has control of at least one chamber of Congress has used the threat of not approving an increase in the debt ceiling to force the President to accept some elements of their agenda. The threat is a real one, the debt increases regularly, and the Treasury is not allowed to make payments when it reaches the debt ceiling, a situation which would force the US to default on its debt, an outcome which virtually everyone agrees would be catastrophic for the country.
The US House of Representatives is controlled by the Republican Party, and in order to put pressure on the White House to negotiate terms for an increase in the debt ceiling, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy succeeded in getting the House to pass a bill in late April with proposals to reduce government expenditures by nearly $5 trillion. The bill had no chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate, but it gave McCarthy the initiative with Biden, who was forced to negotiate with the Speaker on a package of spending limits in exchange for an agreement on increasing the debt ceiling. Biden interrupted his Asian trip to return to Washington to pursue intense negotiations with McCarthy, leading to an agreement reached on May 28, “at the last minute”, that includes provisions to lift the debt ceiling for two years, until after a new administration (and a new Congress) takes over subsequent to the presidential election of 2024, and puts into place a series of measures to limit the increase in government spending as well as various other measures, detailed in a 90-page bill.
The Biden-McCarthy agreement is clearly a compromise, neither side getting most of what they wanted. Although the majority of commentators have opined that Republicans gave up more than the Democrats in the agreement, it matters little now, what is important is getting the bill passed in both Houses of Congress by June 5, the date Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said the US will no longer be able to make its payments if the debt limit is not lifted.
It is at this critical moment that we will be able to witness if there are enough moderate members of Congress in both Parties to pass the bill. The extremists in both Parties – the right wing of the Republican Party and the left wing of the Democratic Party – have already said they will vote against the agreement. In addition, several right wing Republican Senators have suggested they will delay passage of the bill, which can be done by individual Senators in the Senate, beyond the critical June 5 date.
McCarthy and his team are doing everything they can to push Republican House members to vote for the bill, Senate Republican minority leader McConnell is doing the same in the Senate, and Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate, along with Biden and his team, are doing everything they can to persuade Democratic Congresspersons to vote for the bill, with the outcome still uncertain. It is almost comical to hear the arguments both sides are using to convince their members to vote for the agreement, the way they describe how they were able to defend the position of their Party in the bill, you would think they are talking about two contradictory proposals rather than a single document.
The position of Ex-President Trump, who totally controls the Republican Party, is in my view critical to the process. During the negotiations between McCarthy and Biden, he had taken a strong stance urging McCarthy to not give up anything on his demands, but since announcement of the agreement, on the accord, tohe has remained largely silent on the agreement, to the relief of many. I personally believe if Trump were to take a position against the agreement, the large majority of Republicans would be afraid of his anger and of his influence with the Republican base and would vote against the bill which would not pass, leading the US to default. His silence suggests he is taking on this risky subject a more moderate stance, avoiding to lead the US into a major crisis. His principal rival in the Republican Party Ron DeSantis has exhorted Republicans to reject the agreement, accepting the consequences of a US default.
I suspect the bill will easily pass in both the House and the Senate with moderate Republicans teaming up with moderate Democrat for passage. If it does, it will be to the credit of Biden and McCarthy, both showing that it is still possible, at least in these dire circumstances, to promote a moderate position in the fractious world of US politics. When Biden ran for president in 2020 he claimed that with his long background in bipartisan politics, he was the right person to bring Americans together, in vivid contrast to his opponent Trump who encouraged internal conflict. Biden has not to date been able to reduce the animosity between the two halves of America. Will the passage of this important compromise bill on the debt ceiling, assuming it passes, presage a period of more ready cooperation between the two rival US Parties, showing that there is a moderate middle? Regretfully, I doubt it, I suspect this will be a rare exception, there is no real moderate middle in US politics.