The debt ceiling deal could have been exponentially worse. (Photo by Danielle Gaines, Maryland Matters)
In a perfect world – or even a really good one – there’s no doubt that the debt ceiling agreement President Biden struck with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy over the weekend would be a frustration and a disappointment. The agreement will inflict all manner of painful cuts to core public structures and services that are both essential to the nation’s wellbeing and eminently affordable for a country as large and wealthy as the United States. Americans have right to expect much, much better.
But, of course, if this were a perfect or very good world, no such painful and high-stakes negotiations would have ever been necessary in the first place. Had, for instance, the U.S. simply stuck with the fiscal policies it so successfully employed during the 1990s – a period in which the economy did exceedingly well and the nation was actually making great headway in paying off the national debt – the 2023 debt ceiling crisis would have never materialized.
Unfortunately, the destructive combination of huge tax cuts targeting the wealthy and decades of massive military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan slammed shut that window of opportunity. And when the nation doubled down on the failed idea of slashing taxes on the rich during the Trump years, just prior to spending hundreds of billions of dollars to cope with and blunt the devastating economic impacts of the worst health crisis in modern human history, the window was boarded over and secured with nine-inch nails.
And yet, were the political circumstances of 2023 slightly different – had Democrats, for instance, maintained a slight U.S. House majority in the 2022 elections – it’s still quite likely that the bullet the nation just dodged would have never been fired. Rather, it’s quite possible that a responsible budget package – one that included modest tax hikes on the wealthy and the preservation of essential structures and services — would now be law and the debt ceiling would have remained a mostly obscure topic of discussion for economists and budget wonks.
As is painfully clear, however, that is not the world we inhabit, or the political reality with which President Joe Biden has been forced to contend.
Given this hard truth there is only one overriding conclusion that caring and thinking people can take away from the debt ceiling deal: Thank goodness for Joe Biden.
Once again, as he has done repeatedly over the past 28 months, the president looked at the situation he confronted with clear eyes, applied the unparalleled knowledge and negotiating skills he’s amassed during a long lifetime of public service, and made the best of an impossible situation.
It’s true that the deal will cause harm with which Biden’s fellow progressives – indeed, all Americans — are right to feel deeply frustrated. Most notably, the social safety net cuts it will impose will unnecessarily increase poverty and hunger at a time in which the nation has been making great strides on those fronts. And the ratcheting back of planned aid to the Internal Revenue Service will undermine an already overburdened agency’ efforts to rein in tax cheats and promote tax fairness and equity. The deal’s inclusion of a provision to move forward with a controversial natural gas pipeline will do great harm to the natural environment.
But as harmful as those provisions are, it could have been exponentially worse. The plan advanced by House Republicans – a plan driven by a cadre of extreme right-wingers who were more than willing to kneecap the entire U.S. economy in order to get their way – would have brought on an unmitigated disaster.
Not only would that plan have inflicted massive and hugely damaging – even irreparable – cuts to myriad public structures and services, it would not have even come close to lowering the deficit unless massive cuts were also applied to Social Security, Medicare, defense, and veterans’ benefits.
While it’s understandable that many of Biden’s allies wished there were a way to tell the GOP’s “Freedom Caucus” to pound sand – hence the late-in-the-game wishful thinking effort to use the 14th Amendment to bypass Congress – that hard truth is that this was simply not a practical or viable option.
Biden is certainly not doing somersaults of joy over the deal he struck. He knows it will inflict significant and unnecessary pain on the nation. But he’s also wise and experienced enough to understand the politics of our time.
And right now, thanks to the “MAGA-fication” of a sizable wing of the Republican Party, the Speaker of the U.S House, Kevin McCarthy, cannot remain in his position unless he accommodates the demands of the extreme right of his party – no matter how absurd or extreme they are.
Thankfully, President Biden understands this reality and that the fact that he simply doesn’t have the votes right now to change it.
While there may well be moments in the foreseeable future in which the President will be forced to go the political mattresses with the extreme right, he was right this time choose a peaceful solution and fashion a deal that could have been a whole lot worse.
This column was originally published in NC Newsline.
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