The United States is fast approaching the debt ceiling, an arbitrary and arcane cap on how much the government can borrow to pay its bills. If the ceiling doesn’t get lifted periodically, the country defaults and catastrophe follows.
But now, congressional Republicans who repeatedly raised the ceiling under Donald Trump refuse to raise it under Joe Biden unless Democrats agree to devastating cuts to federal programs. They’re taking us all ransom to inflict suffering on the families who’ve done the least to drive the national debt.
While negotiations continue to resolve the impasse, it’s crucial to understand what’s at stake — and why investments in the well-being of American people must be the goal of any debt or budget negotiation.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s plan, the Limit, Save, Grow Act, was created behind closed doors, outside of regular order. It’s not a serious bill.
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It proposes temporarily raising the debt ceiling in exchange for permanently lowering the ceiling on the American dream for all but the very wealthiest of us. The extreme cuts and caps it would impose over the next decade would all but end every human needs investment over the next decade.
Understand this: The primary drivers of the national debt have been unfunded wars and the Bush and Trump tax cuts for the rich.
If McCarthy wanted to reduce the debt, he could simply pass President Biden’s proposed budget, bringing down the deficit while investing in American families simply by taxing the ultra-rich fairly. Instead, the McCarthy plan would make the 2017 Trump tax cuts for the rich permanent — at a cost of at least $300 billion per year. That’s not fiscal responsibility — it’s a handout.
Worse still, McCarthy would make up the difference by slashing the programs that provide Americans health care, putting food on tables and roofs over heads, helping workers get child care, making college more affordable, and much, much more.
These programs aren’t driving the deficit. The reality is that government investment in families remains 10% below what it was in 2010, according to the Coalition on Human Needs, thanks to the last disastrous debt ceiling deal in 2011. Inflation has only made things worse — and McCarthy’s plan is even more extreme.
The Republican plan also calls for more work requirements for people to get federal help. But the assumption that people who get assistance don’t work is false. Most recipients of programs like SNAP and Medicaid are either employed or looking for work. Most of the rest are taking care of family members, attending school or undergoing medical treatment.
Those who do work often need help in the first place because wages are low, child care is expensive, and this country doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or a livable minimum wage.
Federal support for income, health care and child care makes it possible for these people to work at all. Taking away assistance if one can’t meet strict work requirements only makes finding a job more difficult, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And if Republicans go ahead and default, an additional 8 million jobs could be destroyed.
At a time of rising rents, high food prices and inflation, this country needs to do more to help people make ends meet, not less. The debt ceiling is an arcane artifice without a real connection to the economy. But how well we invest in our families and workers directly relates to it.
If we invest in child care, people can work. If we have paid sick leave and family leave, they can tend to themselves and their loved ones and not lose their jobs. When we have quality, affordable health care, our lives are happier, healthier and more productive.
When our children are fed and housed, they experience vastly better health, education and employment outcomes that last a lifetime. And a well-educated society produces thriving workers and families.
We must reject the Republican plan to bully the rest of us into accepting that only the rich deserve help. Congress should lift the debt ceiling with no preconditions. Lawmakers worried about future debts should fairly tax corporations and the ultra-rich and right-size our bloated Pentagon budget.
Then get on to the real business at hand — raising the ceiling on the American Dream for the rest of us.
Karen Dolan is a poverty expert at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank.