By Nate Plautz
RepresentUs Communications Consultant

(Updated June 1, 2023) With a catastrophic default only days away, President Biden and Speaker McCarthy came to terms on a bipartisan compromise that suspends the debt ceiling until January 1, 2025. Notably absent from this deal was a long-term solution to end debt ceiling standoffs in the future. Crisis averted... but for how long?

Originally published May 25, 2023

Let’s be clear: The debt ceiling crisis is a direct product of our broken political system.

With each calendar day bringing us closer to June 1st, the federal government barrels toward economic disaster. On that day, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin says the government will not be able to pay the bill for funds that have already been spent. AKA: we will hit the debt ceiling and the government will default on its debt for the first time in history.

There is no question that defaulting on our debt is irresponsible, unpopular, and extreme. So why are politicians playing politics instead of paying their debts? Why are they pushing us toward default and playing a cynical game of recession roulette?

Tell your legislator: stop the political gamesmanship, it's time to pay our bills. Send a letter now!

Sure, your life and livelihood are on the line, but that doesn’t matter to power-hungry politicians. It doesn’t need to. And that’s because the system is set up to bypass you. Politicians are accountable – first and foremost – to their donors and party leaders. You come last, and that’s by design.

Systemic failures mean that in practical terms, Congressional elections are meaningless for the vast majority of Americans. Because when our representatives aren’t competing for our vote, we can’t hold them accountable.

Gerrymandering makes elections uncompetitive, and winners unrepresentative

To understand how Congress got into this mess, it’s important to understand who is making these decisions - and why. Politicians in Congress are using the threat of default to get concessions from the other party, and this is something that only seems to happen when Congress is controlled by one party - and the White House held by the other. In short, this is cynical, high-stakes political theater.

The problem comes down to elections that don’t hold politicians accountable. Gerrymandering and other unrepresentative election practices cause most federal elections to become uncompetitive. In 2022, 92% of Congressional races were decided by more than 5 percentage points, meaning that only about 8% of Congressional races – just 36 out of 435 – were competitive.

Or, as Ed Helms put it:

Animated GIF of Ed Helms saying "the election is meaningless".


Meaningless elections lead to meaningless representation. Oftentimes, winning a primary is the only concern for members of Congress. This means they answer to a small, polarized partisan base that doesn’t represent the entirety of their constituency. Insulated by limited electoral threats and gerrymandered districts, politicians are emboldened to put their donors and political party ahead of their constituents and their country.


We pay the price for their games – until we fix the problem

While we currently don’t have much say in how our representatives act, we certainly pay for it. A default would cost American taxpayers far more than just raising the debt ceiling. Economists predict up to 1 million jobs would be lost almost immediately while interest rates go up and individual savings dry up.

And at the end of the day, this has nothing to do with federal spending. Congress previously acted 78 separate times to avoid default – 49 times under Republican presidents and 29 times under Democratic presidents. But now, these self-interested politicians are trying to claim that there should be a different standard this go-around.

How do we fix this? In the short term, we have to keep up the pressure on our elected officials to stop the games and act responsibly. That’s why we created a form letter that you can easily send directly to your elected representatives.

But to keep this from happening again and again in the future, we must fight for a more representative democracy that makes our elected officials answerable to we, the people. By ending gerrymandering, enacting Ranked Choice Voting, and fixing the systemic corruption we ensure that our representatives are beholden to their constituents, not the other way around.

Politicians aren’t working for you because they aren’t incentivized to work for you. But at RepresentUs, we’re fighting to make elections and political representation meaningful again.


 Contributors: Nolan Bush, RepresentUs Writer; Dave O'Brien, RepresentUs Policy Director

RepresentUs is America’s leading anti-corruption organization working city-by-city, state-by-state to fix our broken political system.