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New Year, New Existential Crisis Created by Republican Extremism
The Republican led House of Representatives is already off to a great start. Hamstrung by a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president, they are unlikely to turn any of their priorities into law. This, unfortunately, hasn’t stopped them from trying. And even though they cannot pass their 30% universal sales tax (just imagine the current meager $100 grocery haul, and then imagine it costing $130 instead) or their national abortion ban, the damage they can do by refusing to pass legislation is even worse.
We’re staring down two big fiscal fights with devastating potential impact in the coming years. One is funding the government. Democrats used the lame duck session after the midterms to pass a government funding bill that will keep us going for a while but eventually we’re going to have to pass a new bill to fund the government if we want to avoid another shutdown. We’ve been through a few of these - they aren’t fun, but they are survivable. The other fight, which happens to be right around the corner, is about the debt ceiling, and the consequences are potentially devastating.
Lots of other people have explained the debt ceiling better than I ever could, and you can read more about it here and here if you want to get into the details. But for my purposes, what you need to know is this: the debt ceiling is an artificial cap imposed by Congress on the amount of outstanding debt the U.S. can hold. It’s not a cap on future spending, or a statement of budget priorities, it merely allows the government to pay the bills for commitments it has already made. It serves no purpose except to give Congress the adrenaline rush of a near death experience every few years. Most countries have long since done away with it. If we do not raise the debt ceiling, then the U.S. government cannot pay its bills. And if the U.S. government cannot pay its bills the entire global financial system devolves into a crisis that would make the 2008 crash pale in comparison.
Suffice to say, Congress must pass an increase to the debt ceiling. And this, of course, is where we run into problems. Over the course of the fifteen (FIFTEEN) ballots it took to elect him Speaker of the House (the most ballots its taken to elect the Speaker of the House since before the Civil War), Kevin McCarthy handed out pieces of his dignity like pink and red starbursts, offering up important committee seats to conspiracy theorists and MAGA goons, allowing just about any member of Congress the power to fire him, and promising to refuse Democrats a clean vote on the debt ceiling.
A clean vote on the debt ceiling would raise the debt limit without any additional concessions or amendments. Instead, Republicans want to use this must pass bill to demand cuts across federal spending. It would be slightly easier if they agreed on what to cut - some want to cut the defense budget (don’t get too excited - they want to stop funding research into alternative fuel sources and eliminate “wokeism”) while others want to see cuts to Social Security and Medicare. But even if they could agree on what to cut, the broader point is that Republicans want to use this absolutely-must-pass bill, this prevent-the-collapse-of-the-global-economy bill to force their agenda on a country that has said time and time again that they do not want it.
Kevin McCarthy’s fight to become Speaker of the House, in which he caved again and again to the growing extremist faction of his own party and all but guaranteed a terrifying, extremely expensive, and utterly pointless crisis in return for a title and nominal power is emblematic of the Republican party as a whole. Again and again, Republicans cave to their most extreme factions, the members of their party whose hatred and bigotry are matched only by their cynical power grabs. Nowhere in the fight for the speakership, the fight for government funding, or the fight over the debt ceiling are policy priorities or a governing philosophy. The people that McCarthy caved to did not demand votes on legislation that would help people - they want to undermine investigations into Trump’s criminality, conduct their own revenge investigations into their favorite conspiracy theories, vacate the salaries of government officials they disagree with, and raise taxes on the poor to enrich the wealthy.
At every turn it becomes clearer and clearer that Republicans have no interest in governing. They claim to be the party of freedom, but at every turn they show interest only in banning things - abortions, books, classes they don’t like, hair styles they don’t like, and women’s shoulders. They claim to be the party of working people but their regressive sales tax proposal would cut taxes on the wealthy and raise them rather dramatically on the rest of us. Their Congressional committees are staffed with QAnon conspiracy theorists fixated on Jewish space lasers, men who have covered up rampant sexual assault, men who are under investigation for sex trafficking, men who have lied about everything from college volleyball and guest starring on Hannah Montana to their sexuality and their marriage. Republicans who do try to maintain some degree of integrity are at best censured, or at worst ousted from the party entirely. Their standard bearer has been caught dining with a literal Nazi, and one of his heir-apparents likes to trick vulnerable asylum seekers and strand them, homeless, in freezing cold weather.
How do you negotiate with people like this? How do you govern with them? In a country that continues to fetishize bipartisanship these are existential questions. We could have raised the debt ceiling in the lame duck Congressional session before McCarthy and the Republicans took over, but we didn’t have the votes. Senators like Joe Manchin believe that raising the debt ceiling should be a bipartisan effort. We could have eliminated the debt ceiling entirely, but we’d need to get rid of the filibuster to do that, and even though the filibuster does not actually protect bipartisanship (Manchin literally has a bipartisan gun reform bill that can’t pass because it doesn’t have 60 votes), enough Senators think that it does and therefore refuse to eliminate it. And yet, at every turn, Republicans get more extreme, their conspiracies get stranger and deeper, and the violence they inspire grows more and more rampant.
It’s honestly terrifying. What a way to start the year, huh?
So what do we do about it? In the near term, encourage Democrats to stand firm in their commitment to a clean debt ceiling vote. You can’t negotiate with hostage takers - it only encourages them to take more hostages. Republicans must vote to raise the debt ceiling and commit to a society and economy that continues to function. You can call your Representative and your Senators and demand this. I made a little guide for you, and at the end is a script you can use regardless of party. While we’ve hit the debt ceiling already, the Treasury department can move money around for a while, so we have a teeny-tiny bit of time to show Republicans that we have more than enough existential crises to be getting on with without running off a fiscal cliff, thank you very much.
In the long term, well, your guess is as good as mine. I want to say that we should keep doing what we’re doing. In the recent past, we defied all expectations and gained a Senate seat in the midterms, while losing historically few House seats. We passed major climate change legislation, protected gay marriage and got 48 votes to remove the filibuster. We made Trump a one term president. And already the Democratic governors and state legislators we elected are paying dividends.
And yet, here we are. Once again on the brink of financial ruin, amidst a price gouging crisis and an egg shortage and mass layoffs. In the face of all our success, Republicans seem to get more and more extreme. It all feels so very relentless sometimes.
But perhaps there is hope in that too. There’s a version of this story full of financial precarity, an economy hollowed out over decades by deregulation, corporate corruption bolstered by political inaction and protected by a morally absent Supreme Court. And that story is true, but so is the one where we didn’t take it lying down. Every day, everywhere, there are people showing up to help - to volunteer in their communities, to fight for voting rights, to protect books, to show up for queer folks, and get people the abortion care they need. And every time we bring someone new to a phone bank or a volunteer shift, every time we get someone to call Congress or run for school board, we make a huge difference.
So I guess the answer is to keep doing what we’re doing - and then some.