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In debt ceiling fight, GOP leaders cling to misguided metaphor

Republican leaders keep comparing the debt ceiling to families' credit cards. That makes far less sense than they seem to realize.


Late last week, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen sent an important letter to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The Cabinet secretary explained that the United States would hit the debt ceiling on Jan. 19, and it was time for Congress to begin taking necessary steps to prevent default in early June.

Jan. 19, of course, is today.

At this point, the sensible thing for federal lawmakers to do would be to prepare to pay the nation’s bills. It can be an incredibly simple process, which costs literally nothing and does not add to the debt, involving passage of one short bill. Democratic Rep. Brendan Boyle, the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, said in a written statement this morning: “The debt ceiling is officially a ticking time bomb we can’t diffuse soon enough.”

This has the benefit of being both responsible and accurate. Nevertheless, the new House Republican majority has a very different approach in mind: Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his members have said they’ll agree to address the issue only if Democrats accept massive and unspecified spending cuts. If Democrats disagree, GOP lawmakers have indicated they’re prepared to push the nation into default and cause a deliberate economic catastrophe.

To that end, Republican leaders have come up with a metaphor they’re a little too fond of. On Tuesday, for example, the new House speaker pushed this message:

"If you gave your child a credit card and they kept hitting the limit, you wouldn’t just keep increasing it. You would sit down with them to identify where they are overspending and where they can change their behavior. It’s time for the federal government to do the same thing."

McCarthy used nearly identical rhetoric on Sunday. And on Jan. 12. And on Jan. 10. And three months ago.

Unfortunately, he’s not the only one. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise also insisted last week that the debt ceiling is “like a credit card limit.”

The Louisiana Republican added, “Families back home have, if they have credit cards, they have a limit on that credit card. And if they hit their limit or they’re very close to it, which we are, it means you’ve spent more money than you have. You’ve spent more money than your credit card has allowed you to spend. And if you’re going to ask for an increase in the limit, at some point in time you’ve got to sit down and say why are we hitting the limit? Why are we maxing out the credit card? Because this is the nation’s credit card.”

It’s really not. The entire metaphor makes far less sense than GOP leaders seem to realize.

For now, let’s put aside the macroeconomic distinctions between an individual American family and the government of the planet’s pre-eminent economic superpower. Let’s also put aside the often overlooked fact that if House Republicans want to introduce legislation to cut spending they consider unnecessary, they’re welcome to do so at any time. They’re not obligated to threaten us with deliberate harm. While we’re at it, let’s also put aside the exasperating fact that GOP officials only seem to care about fiscal issues when there’s a Democrat in the White House, abandoning the matter altogether when the Oval Office changes party hands.

Instead, let’s consider the badly flawed metaphor itself.

There are some superficial similarities between the debt ceiling and a credit card bill: Both involve receiving a bill for things that have already been bought.

But the similarities break down quickly. For one thing, we’re the credit card company. We can raise our credit limit whenever we want, to any level we want, as many times as we want. Indeed, we’ve already done so dozens of times over the course of the past century, during eras when Republicans were in charge and when Democrats were in charge.

In fact, it happened three times during Donald Trump’s presidency, and each time was unremarkable. At no point did McCarthy, Scalise or other GOP leaders express any anxiety about “maxing out the credit card” or make any demands about changing our “behavior.”

But just as notably, if we take this dumb metaphor just a little further, the family that received the bill doesn’t get to tell the credit card company, “We’ll refuse to pay this bill unless you meet our demands and pay us a ransom.”

Republicans insist that the government’s approach to bills should mirror that of typical American families. Fine. If families can’t refuse to meet their financial obligations unless they receive some kind of reward, why exactly do GOP leaders think the government should do this?