Public, Media, Congress All Fail on Debt Ceiling Debate

It's scary when the people who think they know what's going on with the debt ceiling are more likely to get it wrong.

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There’s lots of frightening numbers being thrown around on Capitol Hill these days. $14 trillion is one. For Republicans, H.CON.RES.34 has turned into another. But for me, maybe the worst showed up in the pages of The Washington Post this week. It’s the number seven.

Here’s why:

According to a Post/Pew poll, 45 percent of people who say they don’t understand the debt ceiling are more concerned about the increased spending that would occur if we do raise the debt ceiling than the possibility of default if we don’t. That’s troubling for those of us who believe the (approximately) 100 percent of reputable economists who say not raising the ceiling would be calamitous. But it’s understandable, too: If you are unaware of consequences, it’s difficult to be concerned about them. [See a slide show of 6 consequences if the debt ceiling isn't raised.]

Ah, but the number of people more concerned about spending than default actually increases to 52 percent when those who claim to be “very” or “fairly” well-informed about the issue are polled. That’s a seven percent jump.

So after months of warnings about the dangers of not raising the debt ceiling, here’s where we are: The people who think they know what’s going on are more likely to get it wrong than those who don’t. Now that’s scary. [See a slide show of 6 ways to raise the debt ceiling.]

How did it happen?

It starts with Congress. It’s hardly breaking news that the electorate is deeply suspicious of Washington and angry about the way it’s been spending their money. But Republicans, instead of doing the hard work of educating the public about the risks of not raising the limit, have sowed confusion and leveraged doubts in the pursuit of patently ideological goals. They won’t help relieve the debt crisis in any meaningful way but will win votes among the GOP base. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

That’s a dangerous, and self-interested, game. The editorial pages should be outraged. But there was an almost immediate capitulation in the media to the idea that raising the limit would be contingent on the parties first agreeing on spending cuts. That may prove to be true. But the media should have done a better job disentangling long-term spending decisions from the immediate-term issue of raising the debt ceiling. The one is not predicated on the other, and, especially when the stakes are this high, the media has a responsibility to make that clear.

And then there’s the electorate itself. Many times we can get away with clinging to the thing that makes intuitive (and in many cases, actual) sense (I’m angry about spending! Congress can’t be trusted!) and hoping that the latest apocalyptic pronouncement from Washington will just go away. What’s risky about that approach is times like this when we are confronted by hard and fundamentally dismaying choices that have to be made, and made correctly. [Read the U.S. News debate: Should Congress raise the debt limit?]

Which brings us to another scary number: 10. That’s the number of weeks we have to go before default. We can’t afford to get this wrong, but given the current state of play, that’s not much time to get it right.

  • See a slide show of 6 ways to raise the debt ceiling.
  • See a slide show of 6 consequences if the debt ceiling isn't raised.
  • Read the U.S. News debate: Should Congress raise the debt limit?
  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.