The Debt Limit Chronicles, Sept. 26

How can the media present a complex issue? Some encouraging examples. And some others

Two days ago, on September 24, I wrote that it was worth tracking the way the media are “framing” the possibility that the U.S. will be plunged into a wholly unnecessary, but potentially very damaging, public-debt crisis.

Here is the first set of examples of how the press has avoided the trap of “both sides”-ing this issue—or has fallen into the trap. As a reminder, this is meant to be a real-time chronicle of how our public institutions are responding under pressure, like the previous Trump Time Capsule series.

Also a reminder: A misleading “both sides” rendering would ignore the reality that the debt limit applies to money Congress has already decided to spend, and that Mitch McConnell’s Republicans are using the issue as a hostage-threat.

Here we go:


1) Yes. Washington Post, September 26. The lead editorial from today’s print newspaper has the headline you see above: “Default should Be unthinkable.” You can read the whole thing, with a slightly different online headline, here. Sample:

Other than sticking it to Democrats, what is the point?… [It] would enable Republicans to run attack ads blasting Democrats for expanding the debt by some large, specific number.

Never mind that raising the debt limit does not approve any new spending; it merely permits the treasury to finance the spending Congress already has okayed.

You might be thinking: This is an editorial, rather than reflecting the news judgment that goes into framing news stories. This brings us to …

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2) Yes. Washington Post, September 25. Here is a news story from the Post, which gives a “fair” airing to both Republican and Democratic views, and does spend time on the political gamesmanship. But it is pointed about what is going on.

The headline on the article is, “Congress is hurtling toward a debt showdown despite the public’s waning interest in the government’s red ink.” Sample from the story, by Mike DeBonis:

While numerous Democrats said they were incensed at what they called Republicans’ hypocrisy for essentially running up a credit-card bill and skipping the payment, many said they were prepared to eliminate the debt ceiling entirely….

Meanwhile, a growing number of Democrats say the party should explore options for eliminating the need for routine debt ceiling hikes entirely — by, perhaps, automatically raising the limit to meet the authorized level of federal spending or by setting the debt ceiling to such an absurdly high amount that it would never be breached again.

“I want to raise it to a gazillion dollars and just be done with it,” House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) told reporters this week.


3) Yes!! Josh Marshall and Catherine Rampell, as guests on CNN’s Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter, this morning, September 26. The subject was infrastructure-spending bills and the debt-limit fight. You can see the segment here.

Rampell’s main point, and a good one, is that most coverage has focused simply on the total size of the spending bills, rather than what the spending and tax cuts were for. Stelter asked her how she wished coverage would change:

Rampell: I think my number one priority would be more discussion of what's actually in the bill, as opposed to this top line figure, which itself is a misleading $3.5 trillion.

There are good ways to spend a huge sum of money. There are bad ways to spend a huge sum of money. The kind of media coverage that we've been getting doesn't really explore whether the kinds of things that are in this bill are meritorious or not,

And she went on to give examples.

Marshall, in addition to agreeing with Rampell, stressed what was left out of coverage of the debt limit:

Marshall: Most reporters take for granted a high level of Republican misbehavior, for lack of a better word… Democrats are trying to basically keep paying the government's expenses. Republicans are using the filibuster to, basically, drive the country into a debt default. I have not heard that anywhere. [Ahem!] That is what is happening…

Most of the reporters even a lot of the best ones, think: We've seen this before. This happens every few years. So it's taken for granted. And when you don't discuss that, you get a very distorted understanding of what is happening. You get headlines that say “Oh, Democrats have another problem.”

Each also mentioned the role of the filibuster in allowing McConnell to weaponize this threat, which I’ll get back to another time.

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4) Yes. On NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday this morning, Mara Liasson clarified the “it’s money they’ve already spent” point. You can listen to the segment here.

Because public broadcasters, using public money, are under such pressure not ever to “take sides” (as I know from my many years as a commentator on NPR), it’s worth noting that this was not presented as another “mess in Washington” story. Liasson said:

Think of it this way. You have a credit card. You've already charged stuff way over your credit limit - your debt limit. Now you have to ask the credit card company to raise your credit limit.

But guess what? The credit card company is you. Congress gets to raise its own, in effect, credit card limit - debt limit.

And in the past, raising this limit to cover deficit spending that has already happened - in this case, things like the Trump tax cuts, which were passed by Republicans, or COVID relief bills passed with bipartisan support - those votes were always bipartisan because it's the - you have to do it. If you don't raise the debt limit, the U.S. defaults on its debt and ruins its credit rating.

But this time, Mitch McConnell is saying Republicans will not vote for this. They want Democrats to do it alone, so Republicans can weaponize the vote and run political ads accusing Democrats of adding to the debt. This is the kind of thing that makes voters very cynical.


5) No. New York Times, September 24. The headline is accurate: “The U.S. could run out of cash to pay its bills as early as Oct. 15, analysts say.”

But the theme of the story is “it’s all politics” / “the mess in Washington.” Emphasis added.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress have shown no signs of progress at breaking a stalemate over raising or suspending the debt limit — which restricts the government’s ability to borrow money to pay its bills. The congressional dysfunction leaves the United States potentially less than a month away from what economists warn would be a catastrophic economic shock…

If Congress fails to act, the United States will be in uncharted territory.

“Stalemate,” rather than hostage-threat. “Dysfunction,” rather than partisan recklessness. “Fails to act,” rather than held for ransom.


6) No!!!! Reuters. In fairness, the story below was back on September 22. Its headline: “Factbox: Congress confronts U.S. debt ceiling drama - again.” As with the NYT story, this one was a distillation of “it’s another political mess” framing:

WASHINGTON, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate are locked in a partisan standoff over how to remove temporarily the $28.4 trillion debt ceiling, a political drama that could pose risks to the U.S. government's credit rating, financial markets and the economy…

The truth is that both parties contributed to the run-up in debt over the past few years…. And Biden's Democrats early this year pushed through another round of coronavirus relief worth about $1.9 trillion.

A grim fate could be in store for the U.S. economy if the impasse leads to default.

“Locked in a partisan standoff.” “A political drama.” “The truth is…” “Impasse.” Come on.

And it follows a similar Reuters “explainer” two months ago. Its headline exemplified the media problem I am talking about: “Partisan fight brews as forecaster warns U.S. could hit debt limit by fall.”

How the story began, with emphasis added:

WASHINGTON, July 21 (Reuters) - The U.S. Treasury Department is projected to exhaust its borrowing authority in October or November, the Congressional Budget Office said on Wednesday, as a partisan fight over raising the nation's debt ceiling erupted in Congress….

A failure to work out differences over whether government spending cuts should accompany an increase in the statutory debt limit, currently set at $28.5 trillion, could lead to a federal government shutdown - as has happened three times in the past decade - or even a debt default.

The White House urged Congress to resolve partisan differences, even as Republicans seized upon the debt limit issue to attack Democrats for pushing legislation that they say has led to inflation and escalating public debt.

As I said: Come on.

More installments ahead.