This crisis over the debt ceiling illustrates the defects of each of America’s two major parties.

The problem with the Republicans is visible if we look through a moral lens at their threatening to fail to raise the debt ceiling — threatening to make the government of the United States fail to pay its bills — unless their demands are met.

(Until the Republicans started using this extortive technique – and only during Democratic presidencies -- both parties had always automatically and painlessly raised the ceiling.)

The defect of the Democrats has been a blindness to the nature of the Republican conduct, with a resultant failure to help the American people understand what that conduct reveals.

The last time the Republicans attempted to use the debt ceiling to extort concessions was in 2011. That was the same year that I launched my only campaign for public office. I ran for Congress against the Republican incumbent, Bob Goodlatte, precisely because I’d lost hope that the Democrats would ever say what I thought needed to be said to the nation about the unprecedented thing the once-respectable Republican Party had become.

The debt ceiling issue was but one small illustration of that.

I used the platform given a major party nominee for Congress to describe the Republican threat in terms as accurate and impactful as I could.

I included, but went beyond, what I heard other Democrats explaining to the public — that raising the debt ceiling isn’t about spending but about paying our bills. (Spending is determined in the passing of a budget.)

(But I also used that Republican lying — when they claimed they were trying to cut down on excessive spending — to expose the more general problem of Republican dishonesty: that was a core reason for my running, as reflected by my campaign slogan, “Truth. For a change.”)

But what I especially stressed was the stark moral implications of the Republicans’ threat to compel America to default on its obligations, and throw the American and world economies into a calamitous tailspin:

The Republicans’ threat -- in 2011, and again now –amounts to holding a gun to the head of the nation and snarling at the people’s other elected representatives:

“If you don’t meet my demands, I will blow America’s head off.”

That image captures the essential truth of the matter, even though, of course, there is no literal “gun,” nor any “head” to be blown off. Although “blowing up” the economy of the nation and the world — resulting in hardship and dislocation for millions of Americans and billions worldwide — might seem abstract to people, that kind of hostage-taking is just as ugly. And that image of “blow America’s head off” helps bring home the reality of the situation at the visceral level at which people are more readily moved.

It’s an ugly reality. Ugly not only in the method (threatening to shoot off the head of the beloved country). But also ugly in its goal: to impose their will -- on other legitimate elected representatives of the American people -- by means of coercion.

In a democracy, the only legitimate way for a party to have its way is persuading the people to grant that party enough power to execute its will. Threatening to hurt the country in order to compel legitimate representatives of the people to do what they don’t want to do is an attack on the people as well as the constitutional order.

Because many people don’t attend to politics well enough to see what’s happening, and to make the necessary judgments, when one party resorts to illegitimate hostage-taking, the other party must expose the implications of such destructive conduct.

Fortunately, in some respects, the Democrats have made progress since 2011. This time, the Democrats seem determined not to yield to the blackmail. (They seem to have learned the lesson that paying ransom only encourages further kidnappings.)

But the Democrats are still not showing the American people what this crisis exposes about what this Republican Party has become.

For the good of the nation, here’s what I would like to see the Democrats do.

At the end of the process, President Biden should step in and unilaterally protect the nation from catastrophe. It can reasonably be argued that this is his constitutional duty: the Constitution itself declares that “the good faith and credit of the United States shall not be questioned.” Also, the President is obliged to see that the laws are carried out, and the spending that Congress passed previously is such a law.

(To which can be added that adding this extra layer to the spending process has gone from being merely superfluous — no such additional step required by our states or by nations that are our peers — to being downright destructive, as it has been transformed from a formality to a weapon hostage-takers can use to illegitimately impose their will.)

But before the president resolves this crisis in that way, I’d like to see the Democrats shine a bright spotlight on the ugly truth this Republican threat exposes:

Any political party that would threaten to blow America’s head off if their demands are not met is the opposite of patriotic.

Many of Andy Schmookler’s works can be found at

(11) comments

eileen w

The Federal Government has a spending problem, not a revenue problem (Reagan). And it is a bipartisan problem.

Andy Schmookler

Whether or not the U.S. Government has a spending problem is a question worth discussing-- and I don't think it's nearly as clear as you suggest. But it is irrelevant to the debt ceiling issue. So I won't engage that "Excessive Spending" assertion further.

The issue is the debt ceiling, which as far as I've ever been able to see, is really a separate matter: this is about paying our bills, i.e. about money that the government has already "spent."

And even more so, it is about the use of the debt ceiling issue to take the nation hostage, to try to compel the opposing political party to rescue the nation from the hostage-takers by meeting demands that wouldn't be met by the legitimate political process of a democracy.

eileen w

Irrelevant? Cause and effect?

Andy Schmookler

No cause and effect, really. Spending is determined when the budget is passed.

The same Republicans who are now use the debt ceiling to extort concessions, were happy to raise the debt ceiling THREE TIMES while the Republican President (Trump) was lately in office.

And by the way, they raised the debt ceiling while Trump was adding fully 1/4 of the total debt of the United States, accumulated over more than two centuries.

Once the budget becomes the law, there is an OBLIGATION to pay the bills. IT IS NOT ABOUT SPENDING.

And in terms of getting one's demands met, as I say in the piece it is the people who determine who wields what amount of power. And a Party is not entitled to get their DEMANDS met by threatening the blow the nation's head off.


Hi Andy, good analysis but I would take issue with your statement “when one party resorts to illegitimate hostage-taking.” As you well know our representative democracy operates on a system of checks and balances developed to ensure that no one branch of government becomes too powerful. The framers of the U.S. Constitution built a system that divides power between the three branches of the U.S. government—legislative, executive and judicial—and includes various limits and controls on the powers of each branch.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, of the necessity for checks and balances. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty is this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”

So, to say the Republican Party is resorting to “illegitimate hostage-taking” is factually not correct – it is the way our government was designed by the Framers to function. You may not support or like what is taking place, but the Speaker has proposed a counter budget proposal to POTUS so let the negotiations of give and take begin. Best, Ros

Andy Schmookler

When you say, Ros,, " it is the way our government was designed by the Framers to function," it strike me that you've missed the point.

The need to raise the debt ceiling in order to pay bills ALREADY INCURRED is not in the Constitution. (It's something that got rigged up in 1917-- and I don't recall what the circumstances were.) The Constitution itself says that "the full faith and credit of the United States shall not be questioned." Which seems to me to mean that the idea of the United States defaulting on its debts is a complete no-no.

Of course, the system of checks and balances is crucial to our Constitutional order. But how does that justify one party threatening to damage the nation as a means of getting its way that it could not get through the legitimate legislative process.

Besides, this debt ceiling blackmail isn't particularly about separation of powers between branches. It's about passing legislation through Congress that wouldn't get passed without the threat to push the nation over an economic cliff.

In terms of check s and balances, the question of what should or shouldn't be spent would legitimately be hammered out in the passage of a budget. The Republicans are free to withhold their support for a new budget. And twice in recent years, as I recall, the Republicans have chosen to shut-down the government.

I'm not fond of that strategy. In fact I think it stinks. If a Party has narrow control of one House in Congress, while the other has control of the Senate and the Presidency, I don't think it's appropriate for that party to shut down the government to get its way. Those other powers are, after all, what the electorate decided to give power to.

But though I think that shutting down the government is a destructive way to negotiate, it is not in the same category as making the U.S. Government default on its debt, which is a HUGE blow to the nation.

But when it comes to the next budget, they are entitled not to vote for a new budget.

They are not entitled to try to dominate by threatening catastrophe. And there is NOTHING FISCALLY RESPONSIBLE about refusing to pay our nation's bills.

The Speaker, you say, has proposed a counter budget. Actually, what he's proposed is not anywhere close to being a legitimate Budget Proposal. It spells out nothing.

It should also be noted that the massive cuts the Speaker is proposing, in the vaguest of terms, are massively unpopular with the American people, according to the polls.

I wonder what you make of those Republicans' willingness to raise the ceiling to accommodate the policies of Trump, which added more to the national debt than any other President ever did in a four-year term.

The whole thing is ugly. And if you think the founders would look at this and say this is how our government was designed to function, I think you should look more closely at the situation.


Andy, reports on the recent negotiations being held by the two sides were that they were moving toward a solution. However, when McCarthy took the proposals back to House Republican members the Freedom Caucus said no dice. This element would have no problem shutting down the Government to get their way.


Yes Andy, i would agree wiht your most recent response and now understand your perspective. Thanks !


Soon the unthinkable may be upon us and Is it the Biden default? Or the Republican Default on America?

Even as negotiators push forward with halting talks to resolve the federal debt-ceiling standoff, members of both parties are positioning themselves to try to dodge the blame for the economic fallout if things go south. Democrats lambaste Republicans for taking the debt ceiling hostage to appease “extreme MAGA” conservatives bent on shrinking government spending. Republicans hit Democrats for waiting too long to open talks and not taking G.O.P. demands seriously.

But deep down — and in some cases not so deep — officials in both parties know they are all going to pay if they don’t get a deal, the government defaults and Americans lose money and jobs and confidence about their financial well-being and future.

“I would hate to be the politician trying to explain to people when the economy is in the toilet that it’s not my fault, it’s their fault,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “Yeah, that ain’t going to work. They will flush us all.”

Polls have suggested Mr. Graham’s view is correct. A Washington Post-ABC News Poll released earlier this month shows that the public is divided about who will bear the blame, with a significant chunk of independents saying the two sides should share it equally." Yup ....


Hi Andy and hpoe all is well !

RE the current debt ceiling "negotions" i firmly beleive there mustt be give and take on both sides of the aisle. As of today i suspect we have ~ 11 days to go before wego over the cliff.

Both sides appeared to talking until POTUS attend the G-7 Summit and then President Biden accused "MAGA Republicans" of unraveling debt talks during his press conference from Hiroshima at the close of the summit, citing it as an effort to derail his 2024 re-election effort.

"On the merits, based on what I've offered, I would be blameless," Biden said. "On the politics of it, no one would be blameless. And by the way, that's one of the, one of the things some [people] are contemplating. Well, I gotta be careful here. I think there are some MAGA Republicans in the House who know the damage that it would do to the economy and because I am president, and presidents are responsible for everything, Biden would take the blame. And that's the one way to make sure Biden's not re-elected."

Quite franlkly i beleive most are tired of the fllolish brinksmanship and the continual blame being placed by POTUS on "MAGA" Republicans -- it has become trite and worn out. If we default BOTH sides should and will pay the price for the game of "chicken" that is taking place and will only hurt those who can least afford it.

Lets hope and pray for the best, Ros


Potus trip to Japan had nothing to do with the breakdown of talks. He had designated 3 people to continue talks and he has been in constant contact with them and fully aware of what is on the table. McCarthy doesn't have control of the Freedom Caucus as I previously commented. Republicans are responsible for the brinkmanship. The spending they want to reverse was approved and signed in t o law. Increasing the debt limit has always been done to allow the Treasury to borrow. This current attempt to roll back spending that was appropriated is extortion plain and simple.

Welcome to the discussion.

We will consider two submissions per writer per month. Letters: 250 or fewer words. Commentaries: Under 500 words. You may submit a photo with a Commentary if you like. Email submissions to