(Photo by Anne Way Bernard, courtesy of Appalachian Voices)
So. This weekend, President Joe Biden signed a bill into law suspending the limit on U.S. government borrowing for two years, thus chalking one in the win column, according to most reliable news outlets and pundits. “Biden Basks in Bipartisan Debt Ceiling Solution,” headlined U.S. News. My alma mater, National Public Radio, rang with a carillon of similar sentiments.
Let’s take a look at some of the implications.
The bare fact of this deal places one single law — the law, unparalleled in any peer nation, that places an artificial cap on the amount of money the U.S. government can borrow — above numerous other laws. Among those others is the provision raising appropriations to the Internal Revenue Service, for just one example. That measure was aimed at reducing the immunity that currently exists for criminals who defraud the United States — that is, their fellow citizens — of tax payments, and collecting badly-needed revenues.
So much for this whole drama having anything to do with the state of our nation’s finances.
At a time, moreover, when calls to defund the police sparked furious backlash, the level of outrage seems to depend on which police we’re talking about. The Environmental Protection Agency, which wields police powers, saw its authority amputated too, under the misnamed “Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023.”
Another law the Act supersedes is the U.S. Constitution. The fourteenth amendment states, in section four:
The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.
So much for our Constitution as “the supreme Law of the Land.”
A further implication of this weekend’s debt limit deal is this: Any piece of American legislation is now subject to a second vote, even after being enacted.
Bills in this country have to weather a highly undemocratic process to get passed in the first place. Pitfalls that threaten them as they make their way through Congress include: refusal by a committee chair or the house or senate leader to bring them up for debate and vote at all; the disappearance or addition of elements behind closed doors, when a bill has passed the chambers in slightly different forms and must be “reconciled;” and the Senate filibuster.
This last pitfall, which used to entail Senators actually standing up on the floor talking whatever nonsense they could for as many hours as they had the physical stamina to do so — and being personally identifiable as obstructionists in the process — is now routine.
This reality constitutes another nose-thumb at the constitution. The terms of that founding document specify only three cases in which more than a majority vote in Congress is necessary for decision: to convict an impeached official, to override a presidential veto, and to propose an amendment to itself, the federal Constitution. All other congressional decisions are, by implication, by majority vote. With a filibuster automatically assumed, however, every single bill needs sixty Senate votes to pass.
The precedent created by last weekend’s debt ceiling deal means that now even all those tribulations will no longer be enough. Henceforth, any law may be forced through the gauntlet a second time when government borrowing approaches a ceiling, if one side objects to it.
But not any side — only Republicans, who already represent only a minority of American citizens. Lawmakers aligned with the Democratic Party will not stoop to such a stunt. Not only do they recoil at playing games with the full faith and credit of the United States of America, but using this device would also violate the most fundamental precept of their own identity: democracy.
Given that this nuclear option is axiomatically off the table for Democrats and their allies, why would Republicans ever vote to abolish the debt ceiling — as some wishful thinking has suggested that they might, in the wake of this latest drama? Why would they ever abandon their nukes?
Finally, let’s reflect on this piece of fallout from the recent negotiations: a green light for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, one of several with which fossil fuel interests are avid to penetrate the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia and the unique temperate rainforest they shelter.
What does this item (not to mention drastic changes to the National Environmental Protection Act) have to do with government spending?
What does this item have to do with the economy of my state? That’s the pretext routinely provided for Senator Joe Manchin’s insistence on jamming it into the debt limit deal.
Mining — of all kinds — contributes a mere 25,000 jobs in West Virginia, give or take, for a population of nearly 1.8 million. That’s way behind such sectors as retail and wholesale trade, healthcare, or professional and scientific services. No coal or gas company ranks even among the top ten employers. There is no question that with appropriate focus and support to get established, sustainable forest livelihoods that tended as well as reaping benefits from this magnificent ecosystem could employ 25,000 more West Virginians.
By GDP, of course, mining dwarfs all other sectors: by a factor of two compared to its closest competitor. However, given the low severance taxes West Virginia chooses to collect, the state does not gain much revenue from this bonanza.
Nor would I or any of my neighbors benefit from the gas this pipeline would carry. We’d be exporting the stuff, to Virginia, North Carolina, and probably points south.
What happens to fossil fuel exporting regions around the world? I’ve studied numerous examples, visited several. They suffer from one or more in an escalating series of afflictions, ranging from economic disfunction (including risky over-reliance on a single industry and loss of other skills, and steep income inequality), through failing governance (marked by high levels of corruption), to political violence, insurgency, or civil war. Plus, in all cases, irreversible damage to the living earth — the rock, the water, the soil, and the intricate tapestries of living communities they nurture.
Such are the dimensions of the debt ceiling “win.”
Win for whom?
Win based on whose priorities?