The meaning of the debt ceiling, and other truths to tell in every story

Writing a daily blog and a weekly column on the same subject means you get tired of including the same beginner-friendly explanations. “No, I don’t need to spell out that technological issue this time,” you mutter as you stare bleary-eyed at the screen sometime past midnight. “The readers can look up my earlier coverage if they need to.”

But some matters are important enough to deserve a clear explanation–in the first screen of text, before the jump–in every story. Why? If you do your job right, you’ll get readers new to you and new to the subject; they may not have time to scan through your prior stories; poor site design may impede that even for those who would like to know more. It took a lot of cranky e-mails from readers before I accepted that.

Many reporters covering the debt-ceiling crisis don’t seem to have reached that point. Way too many pieces about this issue–see, for example, this morning’s lead stories by the New York Times and the Washington Post–do a fine job of recounting the latest tactical developments but fail to state clearly what the debt ceiling is.

Focusing on who’s winning rather than on the facts behind the current political contest is a mistake. The most important thing to know about the debt ceiling is that we’re bumping up against it because of spending already enacted by Congress and signed by the president. (Make that “multiple presidents,” inasmuch as we ran up far more of this debt under the prior administration.) At this point, we put the purchase on plastic, we’ve written the check for this month’s balance, and we have the money to cover it; all that’s left to do is put the check in the mail. The absurdity of this situation has led people better versed in finance than me to wonder if the debt ceiling isn’t a particularly grotesque bug in our federal operating system.

This definition should not be tricky to explain. You don’t need a lengthy Q&A to get it across; you don’t even need 140 characters:

Every story about the debt ceiling should spell this definition out. (And not just now; that should have been in the mix when a promising senator voted against raising this limit in 2006.) Asking if the current crisis is properly viewed as a fabrication–and speculating about the motives of representatives who voted for a ceiling-busting budget and then refuse to vote to raise the ceiling–can then be left as an exercise for the reader.

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