The Debt Limit Chronicles, Oct. 7

The government takes a modest step forward. Parts of the press over-react with a step back. Meta-theme: what the press normalizes, becomes normal.

Malcolm McDowell was not allowed to blink, in a famous, gruesome scene from A Clockwork Orange. Blinking is also the wrong term to use about what is happening now with the federal debt limit. (Getty Images)

We’ve had one step forward, and one step back, in the past few days’ developments, and coverage, of the U.S. federal debt limit.

The modest step forward involves the government. The sobering step back involves the press.

—The good news is that whenever the next entirely needless debt-limit crisis is sprung on the world, it won’t be until after Thanksgiving. The Republican Senate minority, which has resolutely filibustered attempts to raise the debt limit, has agreed to cease doing so for the next two months.

This relieves businesses, workers, bankers, customers, and others of a worry they shouldn’t have had in the first place. Reminder #1: The US didn’t even have a debt limit until World War I, and it was not weaponized as a political tool until the mid-1990s. Reminder #2: The debt limit has nothing to do with future spending. It’s about outlays the Congress has already voted for.

With news of the agreement, we’re more or less in the position of townspeople who get this message from saboteurs: “You know those anthrax spores we’ve been threatening to dump into the city water supply? Well, never mind. You can keep drinking the water. For now.”

(Why is it fair to liken refusal to raise the debt limit, to intentional threats to public health? You can find all the details you want, plus examples, counter-arguments, responses, and precedents, in these installments: September 24, September 26, September 28, September 30, and October 5.)

—The bad news is that this postponement of an immediate threat seems to have lulled some of the press into “normalizing” the situation as a whole.

The unified GOP refusal to raise the debt limit has been a case of dangerous, intentional hostage-taking—as more and more news outlets have been daring to say. But with an “agreement,” a noticeable sigh of relief has come from much of the press, now that the “impasse” and “standoff” have been resolved. The change opens the way to go back to framing the situation as part of the endless saga of “partisan struggles in Washington,” rather than something aberrant or wrong.

And why does this matter? Because behavior that is normalized, becomes normal. What you can get away with, you do. Every single Republican in the Senate has been standing behind a policy that nearly all of them know is needlessly dangerous for the United States. They’ve gambled with the stability of world markets purely in hopes of putting Democrats in an awkward parliamentary and “messaging” position.

Famous battle cries: “Remember the Maine !” “Make them do it through ‘reconciliation’ !”

To spell out the mechanics here: Mitch McConnell has said again and again that he will not “supply” any Republican votes to raise the debt limit. Set aside what it says about individual Senators’ self-respect that they are described as assets to be “supplied.” Let’s concentrate on the practicalities.

Chuck Schumer and his team could easily respond to McConnell’s diktat by saying: Fine, we’ll raise the limit ourselves, with our 50-votes-plus-VP working majority. Except that McConnell and his unified caucus have filibustered their every attempt to do so.

What McConnell apparently wants—and all he seems to want—is to make the Democrats raise the limit “through reconciliation,” which will be slower and more complicated for the Democrats, and could expose them to more attack-ad criticism as “big spenders.” That’s it. It’s what the whole potential crisis has been about.

“Remember the Maine!” was the yellow-journalism headline that helped bring the U.S. to war against Spain in 1898. “Make them do it through reconciliation!” appears to be the rallying cry now.


The vocabulary of normalization

Here are words and phrases that characterize a “normalized” description of abnormally destructive behavior:

  • “Impasse”

  • “Standoff”

  • “Partisan disagreement”

  • “Political dysfunction”

  • “The mess in Washington”

  • “Political games”

  • “Game of chicken”

  • “Game of poker”

  • “Both sides dug in”

  • “Neither side will blink”

  • “One side blinked”

  • “Future spending” [Why is this on the list? Because the debt limit has nothing to do with future spending or savings. It’s about programs Congress has already voted for.]

Look for those in some of the examples below.

Now, an important explanation. On purpose, I am not giving names and specific citations for most of the passages below. If you try hard enough, you can figure some out, but I’d hope you wouldn’t bother. It’s the pattern and habit of journalistic convention that deserve notice, more than any individual case.

On the other hand, I do believe in calling out specific names and examples of people who are breaking convention to describe the realities of the moment, as I did in this previous entry—and will do further down.

Now, some examples of normalization:

In the past day:

—From a national talk show:

This is the kind of thing that is the reason Americans hate politics. It’s the reason we seem to have just a completely dysfunctional government.

[For reference: “This is the reason we seem to have just a completely dysfunctional city water system…”]

—National talk show, before the recent agreement:

This is one of the scariest fiscal crises I’ve covered, because neither side is blinking right now.

-National talk show, also before the agreement:

Democrats as well as Republicans as well are starting to get more anxious. It's just a question of which side blinks and makes a maneuver to actually raise the debt ceiling.

-National news broadcast:

First quotes a citizen-interviewee, saying “It's a giant chess game that the Senate and the House play, and were the ones who pay the price. It sucks.” Then the correspondent quotes at face value the specious “reckless spending” talking-point:

Republicans say they don't want defaults, they're just trying to highlight the Democrats’ multi-trillion dollar plans for new social programs,

-National newspaper, after the agreement, with emphasis added:

The potential resolution came after a tense few weeks of fighting, which saw Democrats try repeatedly to suspend the country’s debt ceiling — only to falter at the hands of GOP lawmakers. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) led the blockade as part of the party’s broader opposition toward President Biden’s spending agenda, including a still-forming, up-to $3.5 trillion package that GOP lawmakers vehemently oppose.

National news broadcast, as the agreement was taking shape:

There were a few things in play here for Senator McConnell. I believe he calculated that Senator Schumer, in one of their first real face-offs, was going to back off first. It went the other way

You get the idea.

On the other hand

Here is a report today by Emily Cochrane, in the New York Times, that doesn’t talk about a “standoff” or “impasse” and is clear about how the problem started. Emphasis added:

WASHINGTON — Top Senate Democrats and Republicans said on Thursday that they had struck a deal to allow the debt ceiling to be raised through early December, temporarily staving off the threat of a first-ever default on the national debt after the G.O.P. agreed to temporarily drop its blockade of an increase….

The movement came the day after Mr. McConnell partly backed down from his refusal to allow any such increase to move forward, offering a temporary reprieve as political pressure mounted to avoid being blamed for a fiscal calamity….

But one day after Mr. McConnell indicated that Republicans would stand aside and allow the short-term increase to advance, he and his top deputies were laboring on Thursday to ensure his members will put aside their objections and clear the path for a vote.

Further updates as conditions warrant.