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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4 thoughts on “The meaning of the debt ceiling, and other truths to tell in every story

  1. Way to go, Rob. You/ve nailed it. Now if only certain people will read and understand (hint: we’re not talking new readers here,,,,).

    John Ludwigson

  2. Fact is most people discussing this issue do not care what the debt ceiling is or how defaulting will impact the country. All they care about is how they can use the issue to push their ideology and political aspirations. Otherwise why would the GOP now be balking at raising the ceiling when they raised it 7 times under Bush? And why would Obama now be so interested in raising the ceiling when he voted against it himself? Most of all, the fact is that the tea partiers are not interested in reason. They have an ideology and every single fact must fit that ideology or they’ll die trying.

    Remember the GOP have stated that their job #1 isn’t to run the country but to defeat Obama. I truly believe that if they can find a way to cause default and blame it on Obama, they’ll take it.

  3. The way I see it, we have no choice but raise the debt ceiling. It doesn’t really matter what happened in the past or how we got to this point. (I suppose the Government could just print at trillion dollars of new money and use that to pay down part of the debt, but we will ignore that option for now.) The US needs to be able to continue to operate and pay its bills. The economy cannot afford to have a shutdown or a default. What we do tomorrow to address the current debt and deficit spending are separate issues. Clearly, there needs to be a point where we stop the status quo and become fiscally responsible. The past is behind us and there is nothing we can do to change it. We can only decide what we will do now and how that will lead us into the future.

  4. My personal request to each our Congressmen/women and our current president is to man-up and drop the point-scoring and petulant politicizing and come together, and then act as our flexible National Institutions in the best interests of this particular nation.
    In a sense, we have no one to blame for this current circus but ourselves….we voted each of them into their respective offices for a specified term, not a career.

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