Debt Ceiling Debacle Embarrassing



A friend who runs a small business told me recently he’s going to make some really tough decisions next week to cut expenses.  Those decisions are going to hurt good people.

I am familiar with people who have started new businesses that are now teetering on the brink of collapse. 

Businesses, big and small, in the housing industry are hurting because of consumer angst about buying or selling.

I know a couple afraid of losing so much of their retirement savings that they won’t be able to slow down when they’d planned.  I talk to young people every week who can’t find jobs and have nowhere to turn.

There are millions like them across America who don’t know where the next paycheck is coming from or how they will support their children or how they will avoid being dependent upon their children in old age.  They are feeling the anxiety of not knowing, the fear of failure, that agony of defeat.  They are real people with real families in real communities, struggling every day because of the uncertainty over the American economy.  They are consumers who won’t spend and manufacturers who won’t produce and bankers who won’t lend because of doubt.

Think of it.  Not an isolated few down on their luck, suffering from a few bad breaks in life.  Millions of Americans in tough shape.  Millions. For years.

It should not be this way.  Not in America.  Not now.   Not ever.

But it is.  There are a number of reasons for this depressive state of affairs, but none more glaring than the utter dysfunction of our federal government and our political system. While millions are suffering, our political leaders have been frozen in time, transfixed like druggies on a single issue, a procedure called raising the debt ceiling.  

It has become an international embarrassment and soon may become an international crisis.  Polling data implies that most Americans are genuinely ashamed of their government and its politics, but it means little in Washington where the political theater goes on and on with the same script repeated over and over again for months.   From stage right you hear: “We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.”  And from stage left, you hear: “We will not let you cut Social Security and Medicare so you can give tax breaks to the rich. It is so robotic, you wonder if there is a free-thinker or independent spirit left in town. 

There is a greater sense of urgency now to extend the debt ceiling and avoid “default”, a term badly abused, but essentially meaning that we will not be able to pay about 40 percent of the obligations to which our government has committed us, an unthinkable, humiliating prospect to many. There may be a short-term solution, another debt commission study with an empty promise of a long-term solution. That may ease the minds of bondholders and ratings agencies for a while, saving most families the prospect of even more economic distress. 
Why are we here, sitting in this carnival of partisan gridlock, political infighting, ideological rigidity, egotism and refusal to compromise–refusal to meet the barest responsibilities to govern the country and protect its people from needless harm?  This problem should never have gotten past last April when the warning bells were sounded. 

In the end, this isn’t even a battle between right and wrong, good and evil.  Both sides have right on their side, but neither has a monopoly on it. Like most things in politics and governing, it is as much a matter of choices, tough choices to be sure.   But choices that congressmen and Presidents, with courage and character, have been making in times of trial for two centuries. 

The President and the Congress should now be months into the job of creating jobs, stabilizing the economy, getting the housing market back on its feet, ending our addiction to foreign oil, figuring out how to deal with 60 million illegal immigrants and dealing with a dilapidated educational system in which both students and teachers are now cheating to get ahead. 

But they are not.  They are playing a dangerous game of Russian Roulette with peoples’ lives, arguing over the meaning of the word “default,” as though they had the expertise to know its consequences and are willing to bet the lives and fortunes of others that their conclusions are right.

No one doubts the sincerity and resolve of those involved.     That is not the issue here.  Nor are individual policy makers the issue.  What is at issue is a collective failure— the nonsensical, unexplainable dysfunction of governance.

When this is over, if it ever is, the country will be in need for some serious soul searching, followed by political reformation. 

And it isn’t just politicians who should be looking inward to find out why and how they let the people down.  The media, both traditional and new, shoulder much of the responsibility, if not blame.  People can’t make informed decisions without reliable, untainted,   information.  Without it people will only get angry, frustrated and intransigent, infecting their political representatives with the same.  It is a vicious circle of destruction at the center of which is the media.

We have lost sight of what it takes to govern 360 million diverse people in an expansive and powerful nation, and what kind of people it takes to do it, particularly with divided government.  More Americans run from public office than seek it.   We’ve lost sight of the fundamentals of governance, abandoned the core strengths of our political system and lost tolerance with ourselves and what we are willing to do to make it all work. 

No matter how the debt-ceiling debacle concludes this week or next, it won’t be a win for either side or for individual politicians or for the country or for those millions suffering from uncertainty.   We need to start winning again.  
Editors’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff.   He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.