The Debt Ceiling Deal Is Not a “Victory”

The deal that brought an end to the debt ceiling circus is not good — and Democrats didn’t have to let it become this bad.

President Joe Biden speaks on the debt limit vote process during a meeting with leaders of federal emergency preparedness and response teams in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on May 31, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

One of the old clichés in Beltway reporting is that there’s some inherent good in “getting things done.” Centrist politicians have long adored the phrase too, largely because it’s so devoid of actual content. To centrist liberals, it has the added bonus of being a handy cudgel with which to bludgeon a Left they insist is too puritanical to muddy itself in the grown-up business of gutting social programs or genuflecting to Wall Street. Infantile progressivism cleaves to impractical ideas like people not being homeless or dying because they can’t afford to see a doctor; adult politics “gets things done.”

So it was probably inevitable that the Joe Biden/Kevin McCarthy deal to raise America’s debt ceiling would radiate some of the familiar rhetoric. Characteristic is Politico’s write-up, which reports the circumstances surrounding the agreement with a dollop of dramatic flair, breathlessly revealing the extensive maneuvers in political management that finally handed “a major victory [to] Biden,” the consummate dealmaker. With assists from elsewhere in the media, the White House is unsurprisingly spinning it this way too.

As ever, the whole thing falls apart the moment you look at what’s actually in the deal or consider what the alternatives to the periodic debt ceiling brokerage there might have been. The Democrats could have raised the debt ceiling at any time during their recent control of Congress and avoided this affair entirely. The debt ceiling being an unusual institution to begin with, they could also have eliminated it altogether (an option Biden casually dismissed last October, deeming it “irresponsible”).

Barring these, Biden could simply have invoked the Fourteenth Amendment, which states “the validity of the public debt of the United States . . . shall not be questioned,” and the government could have continued borrowing.

In lieu of these options, there is now a deal that prioritizes Republican cuts, adds Dickensian work requirements to food aid programs, and worsens climate change.

To this end, a measure included in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act to allocate an additional $80 billion to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) so it could be better equipped to stop rich people from evading taxes is being pared back by $20 billion. Construction of a new greenhouse-gas-spewing pipeline will also be expedited.

When asked about his deal’s inevitable pushing of low-income Americans into hunger, Biden simply waved away the claim as a “ridiculous assertion” — a contemptible dismissal given what detailed analyses like this one from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reveal about the agreement’s impact on people in poverty:

The debt ceiling agreement, which includes almost all of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) changes from the House-passed debt-ceiling-and-cuts bill, would put almost 750,000 older adults aged fifty to fifty-four at risk of losing food assistance through an expansion of the existing, failed SNAP work-reporting requirement. The expansion of this requirement would take food assistance away from large numbers of people, including many who have serious barriers to employment.

Only in the hollowest and most superficial sense imaginable is the debt ceiling agreement any kind of political “win.” Indeed, it’s incredible to think there are people out there who could read a sentence like, “While the precise details were not clear, the deal raises the age at which adults will be required to work to receive food stamps from 50 to 54” and get the impression there’s some kind of victory to be found here. In a bizarro world where political outcomes are primarily about the elite characters who made them happen rather than the people they will actually affect, virtually anything — no matter how morally horrendous — can be declared a win.

If nothing else, it’s a timely reminder that, for many of the most prominent people involved in deciding how America taxes, spends, and supports (or doesn’t support) its citizens, all of this is barely more than theater.