Our political system makes it easy for politicians to confuse the public. The media lets them get away with it – as recent discourse over the debt ceiling shows.
No, a government budget is not like a household budget. No, the debt limit isn’t about curbing future spending; it’s about paying bills that lawmakers have already committed to. No, Democrats are not the only ones responsible for incurring these bills; Republicans also added trillions to deficits in recent years, through both tax cuts and spending hikes.
And no, you can’t balance the budget simply by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse (or foreign aid or salmon studies); significant deficit reduction would require more painful changes — such as tax increases, or cuts to defense and popular programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
The fog of misinformation surrounding the debt limit can be blinding. And look, I don’t blame the general public for failing to understand the issue. It’s pretty unintuitive. Why would anyone design a system where lawmakers can choose not to pay bills they’d previously agreed to? Most other countries don’t do this.
I’m less forgiving, however, when people paid to understand how government works get the details wrong, either because doing so suits their political interests, or, in the case of some media coverage, because of sloppiness.
Much of the plumbing of U.S. government is complex and obscure. Rules that are accidents of history often make little sense and end up distorting political priorities.
For example, for arcane historical reasons, these days only budget-related measures can reliably get through the Senate with simple majority support, whereas other objectives need a 60-vote majority. So, tax cuts have an easier path to passage than, say, immigration reforms, even if both measures have equal numbers of votes.
Such arbitrary rules and requirements can obscure what Congress is doing and make it difficult for the public to understand why lawmakers don’t deliver on certain promises.
Take the case of immigration. When when Democrats had unified control of government, they didn’t pass a permanent legislative fix for “dreamers” despite the party’s many high-profile promises to help undocumented immigrants brought here as children. Did Democrats fail because they were insufficiently committed to the cause? Or was it because they needed 60 Senate votes to get dreamer legislation through, and Republicans wouldn’t cooperate? (The correct answer is the latter, but many Americans — including lawmakers who should know better! — inaccurately cite the former.)
Convoluted rules and traditions build up over the years, like plaque, or legislative detritus. Some vestigial legislature procedures might have made sense at one time but have outlived their usefulness.
For example, the modern statutory debt limit was originally intended to make it easier for the executive branch to manage government debt, believe or not. Before this, Congress basically micromanaged the government’s ability to issue bonds and other debt, which made for a cumbersome process. In the 1930s, Congress set overall limits on debt issuance to make it easier for the Treasury to go about its work. Today, such limits are an obstacle to the smooth running of government.
Illogical rules and procedures also tend to persist because some powerful interests benefit from them. The debt limit no longer serves its original purpose but remains because it’s a useful hostage; fringe politicians (chiefly, Republicans) can use it to extract concessions from political opponents. More “reasonable” politicians are reluctant to eliminate the problem because of all that public confusion about what the debt limit does and doesn’t do.
A former Senate staffer once said of immigration policy that it takes five minutes to explain but 30 seconds to lie about. The same is true of the debt limit — and also the tax code, health-care system, and so many other opaque features of U.S. policy. In any of these areas, which narrative is more likely to penetrate the public consciousness: a simple, memorable lie or the tedious, didactic truth?
In other words, complexity and opacity remain embedded in our political system because they reward demagogues. It’s easier to make antidemocratic policy choices when public confusion helps cloak what those choices are.
There are two possible solutions to this problem. One is wholesale political reform, to simplify our legislative process or at least make it more legible. The other is media that do a better job informing the public about these political machinations and motivations, even when they’re not inherently legible. The first solution seems impossible. But I still hold out hope for the second.