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  • May 12, 2023
  • Chuck Osborne

How Is This Supposed to Work?

The world will come to an end on June 1, 2023, unless the United States raises its debt limit. Okay, maybe that is hyperbole, but it pretty much sums up the press coverage. 

Our regular readers will know by now that I am a big believer in facts. I hold onto the romantic idea that everyone is allowed to have a unique point of view, but that we are not allowed to have our own unique facts. Capital T Truth exists; we may view it from different perspectives, but we cannot deny it. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the media coverage of the debt ceiling debate is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. 

“Eighth-Graders’ History, Civics Test Scores Hit Record Low,” reads the headline of a May 3 Wall Street Journal article by Ben Chapman. What does that have to do with the debt ceiling debate? Everything! Everything people of my generation need to know about the debt ceiling debate, we learned Saturday morning between cartoons. “I’m just a bill…And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill…” – “Schoolhouse Rock” taught us more about civics in that one episode than our current day eighth-graders know. 

This is how our system was designed to work: If legislation is required, which it is to pass an increase in the debt limit, then the House of Representatives must pass a bill. One wouldn’t know it from watching the news, but that has occurred. That bill then goes to the Senate. If the Senate approves of the bill, they can pass it as-is, but if there are disagreements, which there are this time, then the Senate passes its own bill. The two chambers then go into committee to negotiate compromises between the differences on the bills. Once out of committee, both houses vote to finalize the bill and if passed, it goes to the President for approval. The President can sign it into law or veto it and send it back. 

Obviously in real life, the president and his administration have a role in leadership. There is no reason to pass bills that would be vetoed, and the administration can persuade representatives and senators, especially from the same party. However, the power of the president ends there…or it is supposed to. Over the last 20-some years, Congress has ceased to function. There was a day when politicians campaigned at election time and then actually went to work. Today, Congress spends its time in performative art. They video committee meetings so each politician can have a turn delivering a zinger that will get lots of likes on social media from their most partisan supporters. 

Meanwhile, someone has to actually run the government, so in the absence of a functioning Congress, the administration has taken over. One’s opinion of whether this is good may differ based on their perspective, but regardless, it is a fact – it is a fact that this has occurred, and it is a fact that this is not how our system was designed to work. 

The news has reported that President Biden believes President Obama made a mistake by negotiating with Congress in 2011, and this is why he has refused to negotiate now. Let’s pray that this is not accurate and that he and his staff realize that they have no choice but to negotiate. That is the nature of our system. 

The thing about American democracy is that no one ever gets what they want, but everyone gets something they can live with. We are no longer teaching that to our children, and there will be grave consequences if that is not remedied. An educated public, and the ability to compromise and to accept incremental progress, is crucial to the survival of democracy. 

The problem with allowing the administration to run everything is that we now have a winner-take-all back-and-forth in our nation’s policies: We see it in our economy, we see it at the border, and we are seeing it with this debt ceiling craziness. The last administration wanted to reduce regulation while this one cannot regulate fast enough. The last administration wanted to build a wall, and this one wants to have no border. The one thing they have in common: neither wanted to negotiate with Congress. 

Our system of democracy has lasted longer than any other. The reason? Because our system requires stability. A new president means only incremental change, not a wholesale back-and-forth. Zealots of any kind do not like incremental. It is that stability which, while occasionally causing us to act more slowly than history would say we should have, keeps us from going over cliffs. 

We as citizens can make long term plans because we know there is stability. Our foreign allies know they can rely on us, and our adversaries know we will be there regardless of election outcomes. All of this goes away if we continue down this road of administrative rule and a complete flip-flop from one administration to the other. 

To maintain this stability, we need to end politics as a career option. Term limits might help, but in my mind, the solution lies in the Constitution. When our Constitution was ratified in 1788, our founders included a minimum age requirement of 25 for a representative in Congress. At that time in history, the few who went to college did so when they were as young as 13; by age 25, they likely would have been married with children and several years into a career. The Baby Boom generation is the first in American history to have the teenage-to-college experience that we now think of as normal. That age requirement should be amended to be an experience requirement. No one should be allowed to go into politics until after they have had a career doing something else. They should be adults who understand the art of persuasion and compromise. 

Meanwhile, the house has passed a bill. The senate needs to act. Show today’s eighth-graders how our system is supposed to work. That won’t happen; we will go right down to the wire while all parties pose for the cameras, then something will get done to kick the can down the road. However, our world would be just a little bit better if it worked the way it should. At least that is my perspective. 

Warm regards,

Chuck Osborne