It’s this: There is almost never any accountability for the people who deserve it the most.
Because of the legal abomination known as the debt ceiling, we are now hurtling toward a default on America’s obligations within a matter of days — an outcome that could send America into recession and destabilize the global economy. Democrats are trying to raise or suspend that ceiling to cover spending authorized by both parties. Republicans have not only declined to vote for such a measure, they are filibustering it.
Every Republican senator, even supposedly reasonable ones such as Mitt Romney (Utah), has joined in the filibuster. And they have the gall to claim, as they push us toward the cliff, that they don’t want us to fall.
For instance, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) actually defended the filibuster by declaring: “We’re not in the mood to facilitate their difficult job, to make their difficult job easier.“
And then, when Cramer was asked what happens if the GOP filibuster does lead to default, this happened:
“Then too bad,” Cramer said. “It’s just really, really unfortunate that they’re that irresponsible.” He later said he did not think the country would breach the debt ceiling, adding, “I don’t think anybody wants that to happen.”
It’s as though you caught me splashing gasoline onto the walls of your house and fumbling with a lighter, and I said, “Look, nobody wants your house to burn down. You’re the one being irresponsible here.”
We should note that Democrats could have solved this problem when they passed the American Rescue Plan in March. Knowing that this day was coming — in 2019 the ceiling was suspended for two years, creating the deadline that now approaches — they could have inserted an increase into that bill. Or, better yet, they could have simply eliminated the debt ceiling entirely, ending such manufactured crises for good.
Why didn’t they? Two familiar reasons: They underestimated Republicans’ willingness to create havoc, and they overestimated the political damage that might someday come from increasing the debt ceiling.
On the former, we’re now seeing yet again just how far the GOP is willing to go. On the latter, the idea that anyone will lose their seat because of ads saying “Last year Congressman Smith voted to increase the debt ceiling by 10 trillion dollars!” is utterly preposterous, yet Democrats apparently live in constant terror of such an attack. Which shows how deluded Democrats can be about the way political consequences flow from legislation.
Republicans know that when it comes to almost everything in American politics — especially arcane procedural matters, even ones with monumental real-world consequences — there’s almost never a price to be paid for acting recklessly. Or, more precisely, if the opposition party acts recklessly, the voters won’t ever hold them accountable.
Only political junkies with immovable partisan loyalties will understand what’s actually happening. The rest of the public will say, “Looks like another mess-up in Washington; I wish they could just stop all that fussing and get things done.” And who do voters punish when they think that? The president’s party.
This was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) key insight during the Obama years: Dysfunction and crisis are good for the opposition, even if they’re the ones who caused it. If you’re unconstrained by any shred of conscience, you can use that knowledge to extraordinary effect.
When accountability comes, it’s sporadic and partial at best, whether we’re talking about our financial system, our legal system or any other part of contemporary American life. The ultrarich find all kinds of ways to avoid paying taxes, and Republicans fight to make sure they don’t have to. The Bush administration set up a program to torture prisoners, and many of the people who designed and executed it got promoted. Right now the Biden administration is fighting in court to keep the torture program secret.
Who among those who loyally aided Donald Trump, the most corrupt and dishonest president in American history, is paying a price for the way they enthusiastically sold their souls? Almost none; the more shameless and despicable your service to him, the greater your reward will probably be.
In America, accountability is for the lowly. Many of the thugs who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 are being prosecuted, but not the powerful people who encouraged them to do it — and who are preparing to steal the 2024 election.
There are nations where the voters care about responsible governing, and will punish elected officials who intentionally push their government toward disaster. But America is not one of them. Perhaps it’s time for Democrats to stop hoping that accountability will one day come for their opponents, and open their eyes to reality.
Changing Senate rules to forbid filibusters of debt ceiling increases — which they could do today — would be a start. Once that’s behind them, they should cast off their illusions about what Republicans are capable of, and start planning accordingly.