What’s Left: Did the Infamous Elephant Memory Forget the Debt-Ceiling Fiasco of 2011?

For a party that claims to care about maintaining a strong American economy, Republicans are certainly playing it fast and loose with the debt ceiling. As reported by CNN, the U.S. hit the debt ceiling in early 2023, and the government must raise the it within the next few months to avoid defaulting on payments. According to The Atlantic, if the ceiling is not raised, the financial system will be thrown into a catastrophic situation. Per CNN, history shows even the serious threat of default in 2011 was enough to cause a “credit rating downgrade.”

While it is not quite as flashy of an issue as abortion or immigration, how to raise the debt ceiling is nonetheless an incredibly important issue. The debt ceiling is essentially the US government’s credit card limit: It can only borrow so much to pay off debts before it is forced to default on payments. To prevent such a default, negotiations have begun between President Joe Biden and the Republican-held Senate. The ceiling must be raised, but ridiculous political sparring has forced US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to take “extraordinary measures” (primarily suspending reinvestment payments in various retirement funds) to temporarily alleviate the financial burden.

So, what’s the holdup? Republicans are trying to attach conditions to any debt ceiling raise, while Biden is holding strong to his position of no surrender on an unconditional raise.

So why, if a raised debt ceiling is needed for the U.S. government and economy to function, is this even an argument? Look no further than 2011, when the debt ceiling negotiations transitioned from a basic governmental duty to a political trojan horse. In 2011, then-President Obama was in a similar situation to Biden today. Obama’s government agreed to attach budget cuts to the ceiling raise, resulting in lengthy negotiations that created serious market disruption. Debated down to the wire, the deal matched budget cuts with the ceiling increase dollar-for-dollar, with further concessions, conditions and committees attached to any other actions towards the ceiling. The year 2011 was so painful — on both sides — that unconditional debt ceiling raises became the norm for the rest of Obama’s administration. This entire debate is clearly idiotic. Congress must raise the debt ceiling, and they must do so without conditions.

Let’s humor the Republicans for a moment. According to USA Today, there are very few things the GOP could actually directly target to decrease spending. Cuts to social welfare programs like Medicare and Social Security (a third of federal government spending) are incredibly unpopular with the elderly GOP voting base. Conservatives will never touch military money, leaving little else to negotiate for. Medicaid, perhaps, or federal agency funding could be targeted, but those programs are generally popular, especially with Democrats in Congress.

As long as Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy and the GOP are unwilling to negotiate on defense spending, there is no room for financial cuts. Perhaps the most ridiculous part of the entire debt-ceiling debate: Biden is not “precluding” fiscal policy negotiations in general. He is simply — rightfully — unwilling to entangle them with the debt ceiling. Known for his emphasis on bipartisan negotiation, Biden has held quite firmly to his refusal to consider any kind of rider on the debt ceiling. It is clear that he learned from the 2011 fiasco, and is determined not to allow U.S. markets to suffer again.

It seems everything in politics comes back to money. The United State’s fiscal reputation is on the line, and McCarthy must whip his party into line with a no-negotiation debt ceiling raise. The budget deficit and national debt should be addressed and lowered, but they should be handled separately from the debt ceiling. Biden has clearly learned from 2011, and the new “great compromiser’s” resistance to any kind of deal should not be taken lightly.