Current Magazine

The Debt Ceiling Crisis Has Irrevocably Changed American Politics – and Not in a Good Way

Posted on the 05 August 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost
The debt ceiling crisis has irrevocably changed American politics – and not in a good way

Darkness in America's political heart. Photo credit: Ed Schipul

The American Congress and President Barack Obama may have come to an agreement on a deal to raise the country’s Congressionally-imposed debt ceiling, the legal limit on government borrowing to pay its debts, but the bitter battle that brought the country to the edge of default has had significant impact on American politics.

According to several recent polls, no one escaped from that wrestling match unbloodied: A CBS/New York Times poll released on Thursday indicates that 80 percent of Americans disapprove of how Congress is handling its job, the highest disapproval rating since they started the poll in 1977, CNN reported. A CNN/ORC International poll taken on Tuesday, just after the deal everyone hates squeaked through, saw similar numbers: 84 percent of Americans disapproved of Congress, with just 14 percent approving. Ouch. While Democrats and President Obama are faring marginally better than the Republicans in terms of Americans’ perception of how each handled the debt ceiling crisis, “most agree that all of the players were more interested in gaining an upper hand” than the good of the country.

The deal: $917 billion in spending cuts over the next 10 years, in return for a short-term debt ceiling raise of $900 billion. Then, a committee composed of 12 Republicans and Democrats, equal numbers of each, must find a further $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions for Congress to approve by December 23, in exchange for another debt ceiling raise of roughly $900 billion. If they can’t agree, $1.2 trilling in spending cuts will automatically be triggered, taken from domestic spending and defence. No one likes this bargain, not the least the representative who called it a “sugar-coated Satan sandwich”.

Where does this leave America – especially at a time when its strength as a global power is in question?

  • Congress is way, way broken. “It is hard to remember a more dismal moment in American politics. The debt-ceiling crisis and the agreement that ended it point to deep dysfunction in our system,” declared Jacob Weisberg at liberal-leaning With this deal, America appears to have chosen “a slower, more excruciating form of self-destruction” over outright “financial suicide”; what’s more is that this impasse makes it clear that Washington will be doing absolutely nothing to help the American economy. Nor will it be doing anything to help deal with the US’s long-term financial problems, having just signaled to the markets, with this short-term debt deal, that it’s not that interested in tackling those issues. “At the level of political culture, we have learned some other sobering lessons: that compromise is dead and that there’s no point trying to explain complicated matters to the American people. The president has tried reasonableness and he has failed….But surely even he now realizes there’s no middle ground with antagonists whose only interest is in seeing him humiliated.”

“It is hard to remember a more dismal moment in American politics,” said Jacob Weisberg at

  • How to fix it. Mickey Edwards, a Republican veteran of Congress writing at The Atlantic, wasn’t quite so gloom and doom: Sure, this debt ceiling battle was bad, but it wasn’t anything unexpected – after all, the American government is dominated by two parties wrestling for power and advantage, largely uninterested in trying to lead the nation, and has been for decades. But there’s hope: Edwards suggest a six-step plan to turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans by changing the electoral process. One thought: Turning over the redrawing of congressional districts to non-partisan, independent commissions.
  • Not a solution and a sign of a bigger problem. This deal is bad all the way around and does nothing to address America’s long-term debt problems, The Economist noted, echoing much of the comment whipping around the internet. “It marks, too, another deeply worrying change. The willingness of one party to use the threat of default, if not on government bonds then on other federal obligations such as pensions and pay-cheques, marked a dangerous escalation in the partisan rancour that has come to bedevil policymaking,” the magazine noted, adding too that even smaller issues have fallen victim to congressional bickering. “American politics has always been fractious; that is part of its strength. Checks and balances prevent abuse of power and compel compromise. But checks and balances combined with polarisation allow a small number of legislators to bring government to a halt.”
  • No one likes America anymore. Not only is America the world’s largest economy, but its currency is the world’s reserve. At least, for the moment: Roya Wolverson, writing at TIME’s The Curious Capitalist blog, noted that China is leading the charge to ditch the dollar. It’s not surprising, given that the world’s second largest economy has long been hinting at wanting to let the dollar go, but other nations, including ally South Korea, are also shoring up on gold rather than dollars. “Indeed, the political turmoil leading up to the debt deal, along with the deal’s remaining uncertainties, may have tainted foreign perceptions of our trusty currency for good,” she said, concluding, “The longer the debt fiasco rages on in Washington, the more foreign debt holders will be wracking their brains for other ways to escape.”
  • More to come. If you thought the Satan Sandwich fistfight was bad, Josh Rogin at Foraign Policy has news for you: It’s only about the get worse. “Now that a deal has been struck, lawmakers should be able to return to the other pending matters on their agenda — after they get back from their five-week vacation, that is. And when they do finally return to town, they’ll face a long list of foreign policy and national security issues that are priorities for President Barack Obama’s administration, but which remain stalled on Capitol Hill.” Rogin pulled together the “top eight foreign-policy items currently held up by the do-nothing 112th Congress”. On the list? National security funding; the war in Libya currently being conducted by the Obama Administration and not overseen by Congress; and nuclear arms control, a debate that ground to a halt after a bitter Senate fight over the New START agreement with Russia.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog