Is Debating Debt Policy Actually Terrorism?

The fight over the debt ceiling has foreshadowed how the policy debates of the presidential election cycle are likely to go.


Debt doesn't care about elections. The U.S. government must continue to pay its bills, and as long as current spending trends continue, it must keep borrowing money to do so.

But politicians care very much about elections. When it recently became apparent that the government was about to smash its head on the $31.4 trillion debt ceiling established by Congress, thus potentially triggering a catastrophic cash crunch and default on American debt obligations, the political leadership of both parties got right to work figuring out the best way to avoid losing their next election.

In the end, the bipartisan deal to suspend the debt limit—on which the ink was still drying as this issue went to press—just so happens to have an expiration date of January 2025, right after the next election cycle is complete.

Unlike the previous deal, the new agreement contains no dollar figure at which Congress must once again authorize more debt. Technically, the bill's 99 pages include $1.5 trillion in cuts from projected future federal spending over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But those cuts might as well have been written in disappearing ink, in part because of a series of backroom deals to undermine them. The actual cuts most likely to stick are small and mostly symbolic rather than substantive, such as trims to planned increases in IRS funding.

The deal does nothing to reckon with the twin time bombs of Social Security and Medicare. An exciting new feature of this election cycle is that all of the leading candidates are now just saying out loud that they will not be doing anything to reduce spending on entitlements.

Donald Trump recently said, "Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security." In his last State of the Union address, Joe Biden said, "If anyone tries to cut Social Security, I will stop them. And if anyone tries to cut Medicare, I will stop them. I will not allow them to be taken away. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever." And in early March, Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis told Fox News he would not "mess with" entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, walking back a previous position in which he seemed to entertain the possibility of raising the retirement age for future retirees to make the programs "financially sustainable."

While there are some exceptions among the horde of hopefuls climbing over each other to throw their hats into the increasingly grubby ring, there is general agreement that this election will not be about debt, the deficit, or entitlement reform. The new debt ceiling deal all but assures that any debate that does occur won't be framed in terms of overall fiscal responsibility.

This underlying consensus has paradoxically produced more toxic rhetoric and partisanship, not less. One reason the fight over the bells and whistles of the debt ceiling deal was so fierce was in large part because leadership understood the deal simply had to get done in the end, and almost certainly would.

Debt ceiling debates thus become opportunities to score points rather than the moments for serious reflection about spending priorities they were designed to be.

In the lead-up to the debt ceiling deal, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D–N.Y.) compared elected officials who do not share his opinion on a complicated matter of policy tradeoffs to literal terrorists: "I called on the president to invoke the 14th Amendment and mint a coin and do not negotiate with hostage-takers," he said on CNN. "I mean, we don't negotiate with terrorists globally—why are we going to negotiate with the economic terrorists here that are the Republican Party?"

One might argue he was simply fighting fire with fire, of course. In response to Biden's reluctance to meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.) at the end of April for a round of debt ceiling talks, Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) called the president, an elected official who does not happen to share his opinion on a complicated matter of policy tradeoffs, a "guy they got right now locked in the basement" who is captive to "little Marxists with no experience in the real world" and is therefore "behaving like a terrorist." Mixed metaphors aside, this is hardly statesmanlike language.

But wait! The last time there was a big fight over the debt ceiling, someone else reportedly said elected officials who did not happen to share his opinion on a complicated matter of policy tradeoffs "have acted like terrorists": It was Joe Biden, who was at the time endearing himself to America as Barack Obama's slightly salty vice president.

Not everyone in Washington was happy to go along with the deal. Backbenchers such as House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry (R–Pa.) and Rep. Chip Roy (R–Texas) could be heard making the case against it in the lead-up to the final vote, which had a telling 314–117 split, with 71 Republicans and 46 Democrats voting against it. The alternative deal, the Limit, Save, Grow Act, which the House passed in April would have reset the federal budget baseline to where it was last year and placed stricter limits on future spending growth. But given the current leadership's utter lack of capacity or will to seriously address any of the underlying drivers of debt, it's no wonder the front-runners in the 2024 race looked at the biggest threat to continued American prosperity and decided to gamble on the tab not coming due until after their time. (This is probably a safe bet for Trump and Biden; it's a riskier one for DeSantis, who still has many years in the political salt mines ahead of him.)

The fight over the debt ceiling has foreshadowed how the policy debates of the presidential election cycle are likely to go. Serious issues plaguing the nation will be glossed over in favor of a mix of flashy bugaboos and character assassination.

In addition to bipartisan agreement to ignore entitlement spending, the leading candidates from both parties have shown little to no will to grapple seriously with immigration policy and border security. Both Biden and Trump managed to disappoint their supporters in their first terms by failing to deliver on promises to fix immigration. Instead, their policies looked oddly similar because both men found themselves in a policy quagmire armed only with political hand grenades. As with the debt debate, meaningful progress on immigration will only be possible if political leaders are willing to take risks. If not, an implicit bipartisan consensus to maintain a narrow, clogged pipeline for legal immigration and chaotic, punitive border policies will rein.

While the down-to-the-wire theatrics and rhetorical excesses of the debt ceiling debate were exciting, the conclusion was largely inevitable. A failure to suspend the debt ceiling would have taken an important problem and made it into an urgent problem instead. Politicians will almost never do this, because important problems that are forever looming menacingly on the horizon are great for business. Urgent problems, meanwhile, can be disastrous for a promising political career. Urgent problems require hard choices to be made before the next election.

Elections have real stakes, but the leading politicians are doing their best to diminish those on the policy front; even judicial appointments and foreign affairs remain substantively in play. This election, like all elections, will be sold as the most important election of our lifetimes. But if the candidates fail to take the nation's real challenges seriously, we should offer them the same courtesy.