By Megan Caska
Senior Political Director

February 7, 2023

Last month, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen made it official: our government hit its debt limit. Look, I get it: the debt ceiling can seem like a complicated – and even absurd – debate that doesn’t affect your everyday life. And even though we’ve all gone through a very similar debate several times over the years, we all need to pay attention this year.

The partisan bickering around the debt ceiling exposes how backward our elected officials’ priorities are. Rather than working on issues that the American people support, cynical politicians are creating an unnecessary crisis to hold popular programs hostage that we rely on for our health and safety.

This ever-worsening dysfunction is a symptom of our broken government. Until we fix the root causes, we will keep finding ourselves in these unnecessary high-stakes debates.

The debt ceiling crisis, explained

The purpose of the debt ceiling is to set a legal limit on how much money the federal government can borrow to pay off its bills. Congress has had to raise the debt ceiling 78 times since 1960 because we’ve had a budget deficit almost every year for the last 50 years.

Each time we approach the debt ceiling, Congress has a decision to make: raise the debt ceiling or stop paying its bills. If they choose to stop paying bills, the U.S. could “default” on our debt for the first time in history. That could plunge the country – and potentially the world – into economic chaos.

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Why doesn’t Congress get its act together and raise the debt ceiling?

It all comes down to our zero-sum, two-party politics. Republicans and Democrats blame each other for the ever-rising debt, but in reality, increasing the national debt is one of the few true instances of bipartisanship. This year, the House Republican majority says they won’t raise the ceiling without major cuts to national spending. President Joe Biden and Democrats are refusing to negotiate and won’t agree to any of the proposed cuts. That’s why we’re at a partisan standstill.

Programs every American relies on are on the chopping block

As usual, the political brinkmanship will get the lion’s share of media attention over the next few months. But that’s not what’s most important in this debate. Popular programs that every American relies on are on the chopping block. If the two sides can’t come together and figure out how to make the government function, here’s what could be at risk:

  1. Medicaid. The Republicans’ plan would ensure payments are made on programs like Social Security, veterans’ benefits, and Medicare. But Medicaid, the immensely popular health care program for low-income families, could be left out, putting tens of millions of people at risk.
  2. Food safety inspections. To protect Americans’ health, the FDA regularly inspects food products for safety. But if our government breaches the debt ceiling, this is another critical program that might be scaled back. Government shutdowns have caused lapses in inspections in the past, leaving the government without the proper ability to inspect domestic food and keep us safe.
  3. Border control and air traffic control. The 2019 government shutdown came to an end because stresses on border and air traffic control resulted in large waits and canceled flights. With travel still affected by COVID, a lack of payments to these programs could mean even larger headaches.
  4. National parks. Another startling impact of the 2019 shutdown was the dirty and dangerous conditions in our National Parks. If our parks are not properly funded, the damage could be felt for years.

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Government dysfunction is the symptom, not the disease

So, will the federal government default on its debt? Unfortunately, we don’t know. And that’s the problem. Politicians are playing games with our country’s economy and putting partisanship over working for the people.

In a functional representative democracy, this kind of dangerous charade would likely never happen. But because of backward incentives, here we are at the precipice of financial disaster.

We shouldn’t accept a government where politicians put Americans’ health and safety at risk in order to push their own self-interested agendas. If we want our politicians and our government to better represent us, we have to fix these structural problems. Sign up below to join us in challenging the two-party establishment and giving the people the strongest voice in our democracy.

Contributors: Nolan Bush, RepresentUs Writer; Anh-Linh Kearney, RepresentUs Research Assistant

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