Tired of Congress’ repeated partisan standoffs every time a big fiscal deadline approaches, like last week’s? Weary of the breathless cable coverage of looming government shutdowns or debt defaults, knowing the partisans (almost) always come to some 11th-hour compromise, as they did Tuesday?
Or have you tuned out by now?
Here’s why you should pay attention: These senseless, self-induced crises have cost us taxpayers big bucks in higher interest on U.S. debt, even when Congress manages to avert a government stoppage or a default. On top of that, they’ve taken an incalculable toll on the public’s faith in governance.
And know that this irresponsibility is not a both-sides issue. Democrats and Republicans are not equally culpable. Going back more than a quarter-century, it has been Republicans who have provoked the showdowns.
Republicans have made budget brinkmanship routine — when a Democrat is in the White House, that is. They were quietly complicit as the federal debt grew by nearly $8 trillion during the Trump administration.
The serial fiscal dramas have real consequences. The latest came Friday, when Moody’s Investors Service announced that it had changed its outlook for U.S. government debt to “negative” from “stable,” partly because of “continued political polarization.”
Moody’s gave four examples: “Renewed debt limit brinkmanship, the first ouster of a House Speaker in U.S. history, prolonged inability of Congress to select a new House Speaker, and increased threats of another partial government shutdown.”
Those examples only describe the House Republican majority.
On Tuesday the latest shutdown threat was lifted — for now. The House’s novice speaker, Mike Johnson of Louisiana, could not resolve Republicans’ infighting over how much to slash spending and other nonstarter demands, including anti-abortion add-ons. He turned to Democrats for enough votes to pass a funding bill that simply extends the current spending levels, keeping government open and buying Congress time — to February — to finally reach an agreement for this fiscal year.
So the saga isn’t over yet. Though Moody’s lowered its outlook for U.S. debt, it did maintain the nation’s triple-A credit rating, the highest possible. If Congress makes a hash of the funding process yet again in the new year, Moody’s is poised to knock that down as well.
Credit rating affected
That, in turn, could provoke the country’s creditors, who buy Treasury bills and notes, to demand that the government pay them higher interest, which only adds to the annual deficit, the tab we taxpayers are ultimately responsible for.
Two ratings firms have already downgraded U.S. credit from AAA to AA+. Fitch Ratings did it in August, soon after House Republicans refused to raise the debt limit without unrealistically deep spending cuts.
Fitch’s downgrade was only the second time in the nation’s history that the U.S. credit rating has been cut. The first was after a 2011 debt-limit crisis, when Standard & Poor’s took the AAA rating down a peg. It has never restored the top rating.
There is a parallel between Congress’ fiscal mayhem in 2011 and 2023: Those years followed Republicans’ winning a House majority in midterm elections, and resolving to shake things up under a Democratic president.
Republicans once claimed the descriptor “fiscal conservatives.” But over decades of covering budget policy, I’ve watched them squander that brand. Insisting on excessive spending cuts to reduce deficits while opposing any tax increases and threatening shutdowns — those aren’t the tactics of fiscal conservatives.
By now we’re sick and tired of the brinksmanship. If only Republicans were, too.
Jackie Calmes is an opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times in Washington, D.C.