House Speaker Kevin McCarthy welcomes President Joe Biden to this year’s State of the Union address.
The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy welcomes President Joe Biden to this year’s State of the Union address.

The system worked

In the debt ceiling vote, days of negotiations were followed by votes in the House and Senate that were truly bipartisan. Given the stakes, getting something done was crucial.

CHESTER — I hadn't realized how frightened I'd been about the debt-ceiling situation until I found myself sleeping well the night after the House approved the deal struck between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. I wasn't sure the Senate would pass it, but this was a good sign.

In the broadest sense, the really good sign was that the United States wouldn't default on its obligations and, thus, that the world's economic and political underpinnings would not - at least this week - be totally unsettled.

I have reluctantly but faithfully followed this process, from the moment McCarthy sold his soul to the Freedom Caucus to the passage of the House bill that included so many things that I found deeply disturbing.

I'm one of Bernie Sanders' social democrats, a post–New Deal, post-liberal progressive kinda guy who hopes that America's politics will, eventually, look a lot like Norway's.

I'm not squeamish about paying higher taxes myself and certainly support setting up a system that progressively taxes wealthy people (I like the anybody-earning-above-$400,000-per-year standard) and profitable corporations.

I believe that people and businesses that make a lot of money should give a fair amount of it to the government(s), that everybody should have free health care, that all of us should be well-housed, well-educated, and well-fed, and all the rest.

* * *

So I'm not happy with the details of the debt-ceiling bill. (Of course, I'm still not sure exactly how all these details will play out in either the short or the long run, but neither is anybody else.)

But, watching how all this worked out, I'm strangely comforted.

I am comforted not because my side won. I am comforted because the system worked. It's not, apparently, as broken as I had thought it was.

It worked because two people who probably disagree on everything from climate change to how to grill chicken were able to say, “I'm really, really not happy about what I'm agreeing to, and I'm gonna get in a lot of trouble from a lot of people in my party, but this is the best we can get done.”

And, given the stakes, getting something done was crucial.

* * *

Look at how it worked.

Days of negotiations were followed by votes in the House and Senate that were truly bipartisan.

In the House, the vote was 314 to 117, with 149 Republicans and 165 Democrats voting for the bill and 71 Republicans and 46 Democrats voting against it. In the Senate, the vote was 63 to 36, with 46 Democrats and 17 Republicans supporting the bill while five Democrats and 31 Republicans opposed it.

I'm positive that nobody who voted for the bill liked it.

But everybody who voted for it realized that their preferences and their philosophies - and even their standing with their constituents - mattered less than the global picture.

Defaulting on our debts would have struck a blow to economic and political security - ours, and pretty much everybody else's, and that would have taken a long, long time to undo.

* * *

There's still a lot of work to be done, of course.

Beginning, perhaps, with getting rid of the whole debt-ceiling fiasco by taking part of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution seriously: the part that reads, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned” should be taken at face value.

In the meantime, let's remember how government is supposed to work.

Legislators are supposed to propose bills. Then other legislators are supposed to negotiate with them. Finally, legislators are supposed to vote on the bill, based on what they think is feasible and practical, although it may not be exactly what they want.

Let's have more of this, please.

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