08/01/2011 09:27 EDT | Updated 10/01/2011 05:12 EDT

U.S. Debt Ceiling Debate Speaks to Dysfunctional System

The complexity of passing legislation through Congress with an intransigent Republican Party is something we should be worried about here in Canada, too. There is the prospect that the federal government, Canada's largest province, and Canada's largest city could all be governed by ideological conservatives.


What is wrong with the US government? It seems the optimism from the 2008 election has long faded and promises of a post-partisan America seem now a fantasy. This has been made clear by the contentious debate over raising the debt ceiling (the legislated limit for America's national debt). Where the United States risked default, Republicans -- in particular Tea Party Republicans -- seemed more concerned about ideology than with jobs and America's economic recovery.

In 2008 Barack Obama led a brilliant election campaign which gave many Americans hope for real change in the acrimonious nature of politics and policy in Washington DC. In retrospect though, expectations were too high.

The United States Congressional system, with separate branches of government and weak party discipline, is a difficult system to navigate in passing legislation. Trade-offs (such as money for projects in a Congressperson's district) is common to win their votes. Legislation must pass the House of Representatives, Senate, and receive the president's signature -- each branch having significant power.

There are presidents who have been skilled at the art of legislation and dealing with Congress. For example Lyndon Johnson, who himself was Senate majority leader before becoming vice president and then president, was able to navigate this system and pass significant legislation on anti-poverty, government provided Medicare for Americans 65 and over, and civil rights for African-Americans.

Also, in crisis situations like the Great Depression of the 1930s, the president and Congress passed social welfare legislation and public works programs to help Americans suffering economic hardship.

The complexities of passing legislation through Congress have, in recent years however, become treacherous with an intransigent Republican Party bent on seeing Barack Obama fail (an aim admitted by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell). Also, particularly after the 2010 midterm elections, there is an increased cohort of hard-right Tea Party Republicans driven by a purist ideology of minimal taxes and small government.

The Tea Party ideological world-view is one that can trump facts and empirical evidence, as seen with the debt ceiling negotiations where many Tea Party Republicans seemed willing to risk economic calamity in the name of avoiding tax increases on the very wealthy, and in the name of cutting government services, even essential services like healthcare and social welfare. It should be noted that Republican Congressman Paul Ryan's budget plan calls for the dismantling of America's limited public healthcare provision for seniors, the very Medicare passed by Lyndon Johnson.

The debt ceiling has been raised numerous times in the past, under both Democratic and Republican presidents. It has been a routine task, a quick formality passed either through a short bill, or short addition to an existing bill, simply stating the new amount the debt ceiling is raised to. This happened even when opposing parties occupied the Whitehouse and Congressional leadership, with these Congressional leaders ensuring there would be enough votes for the debt ceiling limit to be raised.

It seems simple and straightforward, especially as the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling are potentially dire, with consequences for the American and world economy. These potential consequences include the United States defaulting on its loan obligations, which can hurt America's credit rating and lead to higher interest rates on borrowing, as well as havoc in American and international stock exchanges risking another economic downturn as bad, or worse than, the one in 2008.

Not raising the debt ceiling could also mean that the U.S. government would not be able to meet the financial requirements of running programs and services, including healthcare and social welfare which help millions of Americans.

American stock markets and the American dollar took a hit over the drawn out debt ceiling negotiations.

The responsible action would have been to quickly raise the debt ceiling, especially in a recession where the focus should be on jobs and unemployment. However, Republicans -- especially with a strengthened Tea Party contingent -- have become increasingly irresponsible.

The Tea Party can be viewed as the latest and most extreme trend in a shift towards the right that began in the late 1960s under President Nixon, and continued -- with growing intensity -- under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (with Bush surpassing the prior two in neo-conservative adherence). Each president was more stridently neo-conservative, each increasingly more driven by ideology.

This is something we should be worried about here in Canada too, as the neo-conservative right gains greater foothold with Harper's Conservative majority government and the potential, after the upcoming Ontario election, to have another Mike Harris-style government in Ontario -- there is the prospect that the federal government, Canada's largest province, and Canada's largest city (Toronto under Rob Ford) could all be governed by ideological conservatives.

In the United States, there are officials from the Nixon and Reagan administrations now denouncing the Tea Party's extremism, though maybe they are also horrified at the Frankenstein whose creation they laid the groundwork for.

America's constitutional division of powers, and hard-right Tea Party Republicans, make for a worrying situation in the United States, with ideology trumping facts, and with the American and world economy in the balance.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Telegraph Journal.

Hassan Arif is a columnist with the Telegraph Journal in New Brunswick. He is a PhD candidate in urban sociology at the University of New Brunswick and has a background in law and political science. He can be reached at