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Budowsky: The Biden-McCarthy tango of democracy and debt

President Biden pats Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on the back
Greg Nash
President Biden pats Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on the back as Biden arrives for the Friends of Ireland Luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Friday, March 17, 2023.

At a moment in history when there is at least some chance that the world will soon witness the faith and credit of America going into default, causing a financial crash that has not been seen in many generations, one wonders what President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) must think of one another.   

Biden and McCarthy have the fate of the U.S. financial system in their hands. We can imagine that the late President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) are up in heaven asking, “I wonder what those fellows will come up with this week?” 

Biden and McCarthy, who are dancing a grimly serious tango of democracy and debt today, should agree to a one-month clean extension of the debt ceiling to buy a little time to secure a deal.  

And this would probably persuade rating agencies not to downgrade America’s credit rating prior to default, which caused financial disaster in 2011. 

If this suggestion turns out not to be necessary, it will be because a shocker debt ceiling agreement had been reached, in which case we should all celebrate.  

While half of our readership will probably disagree with one of these two opinions, please consider them: 

First, Biden may go down in history as a very good or near great president for leading the nation through the worst pandemic in a century and an economy ravaged by a recession. His list of accomplishments is long, legitimate, lasting and in some cases bipartisan. 

Second, let’s be honest, whether we take pleasure in this or not, McCarthy has surpassed many expectations as leader of House Republicans. The People’s House may have a tiny Republican majority, at least for now, but the Speaker has played his hand better (so far) than many anticipated. 

The debt ceiling is the illegitimate child of budget deficits that have gotten much too large, for some reasons understandable and other reasons political, and a democracy corrupted too much for the politicians to have addressed the problem through normal means.   

Will Republicans give President Bill Clinton a standing ovation for addressing the deficit, and President Donald Trump a “boo” for bloating it? 

The 2023 debt ceiling crisis is caused by the coincidental but horribly damaging fact that the executive and legislative branches are divided, and the House and Senate are for practical purposes equally divided. 

Given these problems, the only way to address the debt ceiling and the deficit is through bipartisanship that would address issues of paramount importance, avoid deal-killers for either party and make legitimate progress without triggering a default and financial crash. 

Given these limitations, the fairest and most just solution might be one that wins support from significant numbers of both parties, and opposition from some of both parties —while creating a longer-term process to deal with these matters in ways that have been employed in the past without the debt ceiling procedure. 

Where I strongly disagree with McCarthy is that in the long run, and for the greater good of the nation, there is no way to address the budget deficit without addressing tax revenue as well as domestic and defense spending. 

With Biden and McCarthy destined to be dancing the tango of democracy and debt at least until the next inauguration, we are witnessing the growth of a historically important relationship. It will involve challenging choices, especially from the Speaker, but this is what democracy requires. 

If a major agreement on the debt ceiling has not been reached by now, extend the deadline by a month to avoid a financial crash. 

Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) and former Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), who was chief deputy majority whip of the House of Representatives.

Tags Bill Clinton budget deficit debt ceiling Donald Trump Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Lloyd Bentsen Ronald Reagan spending cuts Tip O'Neill

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