The Debt Limit Is Just One of America’s Six Worst Traditions

Believe it or not, the debt ceiling is an improvement on what the United States used to do.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: The dome of the U.S. Capitol is reflected on January 06, 2022 in Washington, DC. One year ago, supporters of President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol Building in an attempt to disrupt a congressional vote to confirm the electoral college win for Joe Biden. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The dome of the U.S. Capitol is reflected, on Jan. 6, 2022 in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Image

Imagine that your family has a generations-long tradition that requires that for every 10th dinner, you search your neighbors’ trash cans like raccoons and eat whatever garbage you find.

Usually none of you asks why you do this. It’s just what you learned from your parents. But occasionally someone does some family research and finds out it originated in the early 1800s, when your great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather explained in his diary that he was creating this custom “so every feventh child will expire from famonella.” And you have to admit this still works, since every now and then one of your children dies from food-borne illness. Yet you keep on eating the garbage.

This is what American politics is like, except we have dozens of these aged traditions whose purpose is actively malevolent or simply serves no purpose at all. They nonetheless cling like barnacles to our life in the 21st century. We just can’t get our act together to get rid of them. 

The debt ceiling plaguing Washington politics — and, potentially, poisoning the rest of us — is just one of at least six of these abominable ideas.

The Debt Limit

Believe it or not, the debt ceiling is an improvement on what the United States used to do. Congress once required the executive branch to get its permission to do any borrowing whatsoever and in fact, often specified all the details — i.e., how long the bonds would take to mature, what interest rate it would pay, etc. 

This was a terrible way to run a country and to its credit Congress over the decades after World War I changed this awful system into another, slightly less awful one. Now Congress just limits the total borrowing by the government and lets the Treasury Department take care of the details. 

But it still makes no sense. Congress has already ordered the executive branch to spend money on certain activities and also levy certain taxes. It’s contradictory and silly for Congress to also say that the government can only borrow a certain amount of money to make up whatever difference between the spending and taxes it itself has required.


What the Debt Limit Fight Is Actually About

It’s also dangerous. No one knows exactly what will happen if the debt limit is breached, and the Biden administration then fails to use the various options it has to keep paying the bills. But it definitely would be extremely unpleasant.

In the past, this danger has never manifested in reality, for good reason. A debt limit imbroglio would immediately cause the most pain to the financial and corporate interests traditionally represented by the Republican Party. As some people have observed, the GOP’s refusal to raise the debt limit unconditionally is like a crazed man pointing a gun at his head and saying, “Give me what I want, or I’ll shoot!”

But there are two problems with this metaphor. First, a strong faction of the Republican Party appears to have convinced itself that shooting itself in the head wouldn’t hurt that much. Second, the rest of the country is the GOP’s metaphorical conjoined twin. If that faction decides to commit suicide, it’s going to cause severe problems for us too.

Pretty much the only other country that has created this pointless problem for itself is Denmark. I lived there briefly when I was 6 years old, and while they broadcast American shows on TV, they didn’t have ads to accompany them and just filled up the extra time with footage of goldfish swimming around in a bowl. Keeping the debt limit will inevitably lead us down the path to this kind of horrifying socialism. 

The Electoral College

The U.S. right constantly proclaims that the Electoral College is a sign of the enduring wisdom of our founders, who created it to give smaller rural states a voice in the choice of the president.

This means that they must also believe the Founding Fathers were dolts with absolutely no idea what they were doing. Of the first five presidents, four of them were from Virginia, and all four served two terms. Meanwhile, the only exception, John Adams from Massachusetts, was in office for just four years. This means that during the first 36 years of presidents, the chief executive was a Virginian for 32 of them. And during this period, Virginia was either America’s biggest or second-biggest state.

However, America’s founders were not in fact incredibly incompetent. The actual rationale for the Electoral College was explained by James Madison in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention. Madison said he believed the best way to choose a president would be by popular vote, which “would be as likely as any that could be devised to produce an Executive Magistrate of distinguished Character.” 

But “there was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people.” This was, Madison said, the fact that Southern states generally had stricter limits on which men could vote, and more of their population was enslaved. This meant that the South “could have no influence in [a popular] election” and so would never support a Constitution that used this method. Hence the Electoral College kludge was necessary to get the U.S. off the ground. 

The Senate

Madison, however, was by no means all-in on democracy. As he also said at the Constitutional Convention, he believed that for the new country to endure, part of the government had to represent the “invaluable interests” of large, rich landowners and make sure the rabble couldn’t vote to take their wealth away. Part of the structure they were creating in Philadelphia, Madison believed, “ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body.”

The Constitution originally ordained that senators would be elected by state legislatures. This was altered by the 17th Amendment, and senators have been popularly elected since 1913. Nonetheless, Madison’s scheme continues to work surprisingly well, with the Senate still being the place where the political hopes of Americans go to die.

One solution here would be for the California legislature to wait until Democrats control the federal House and Senate. Then California could separate itself into 68 heavily gerrymandered blue states with Wyoming-sized populations. Congress could admit all the new states and their 136 Democratic senators into the union — and then easily block any red states from trying something similar. This would be totally constitutional and be worth it just to get the U.S. right to stop talking about the wisdom of the founders.

The Filibuster

The Senate is inherently against popular democracy. But those running it have long believed that it isn’t anti-democracy enough and so have supported the supermajority requirements of the filibuster. Between 1917 and 1994, 30 bills were stopped from passage thanks to the filibuster. Half of these were civil rights measures, including anti-lynching measures, the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and attempts to outlaw poll taxes. This is why in 2020, Barack Obama called the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic.” But neither he nor any prominent Democrats has put much energy into getting rid of it. 

“First Past the Post” Voting

The way voting generally works in the U.S. is that whoever gets the most votes wins. This is simple, easy to understand, and bad. It naturally creates a two-party duopoly, since each party can accurately harangue any miscreants within its ranks tempted to vote for a third party that they will simply act as spoilers — i.e., if they vote for their first-choice candidate, they’re merely making it more likely that their last-choice candidate will win.

There are several excellent solutions to this problem, including instant-runoff voting and — for House elections on a state and federal level — multimember districts. The problem here is that both the Democratic and Republican parties love the current setup and are not interested in creating more competition for themselves just because it would be good for America.

Most political commentators don’t have the courage to tell you this, but I do: All of our current suffering is the fault of the Florida Panhandle.

The Florida Panhandle

Geographically and culturally, the Florida Panhandle makes no sense. On any sensible map, it would belong to Alabama. But it’s part of Florida thanks to ancient colonial struggles between the United Kingdom, Spain, and France — struggles that happened before there even was a United States.

If Florida didn’t have its conservative panhandle, Al Gore would have easily beaten George W. Bush in Florida in the 2000 election and become president. The Bush administration resolutely ignored all the warnings from its intelligence agencies about the coming 9/11 attacks, but Gore almost certainly would have taken the threat seriously enough to disrupt the terrorist plot. No 9/11, no Iraq War. And no Bush presidency, no majority on the Supreme Court for Citizens United and the ensuing catastrophic surge of cash into the U.S. political system. Moreover, the 2007-2008 economic disaster would probably not have occurred or would have been significantly less severe.

Instead the Florida Panhandle gave us our current country, which is constantly going haywire. It also gave us Errol Morris’s documentary “Vernon, Florida,” originally titled “Nub City,” about a small town where many residents have amputated their own limbs in order to collect dismemberment insurance.

So that’s thaT: six ghastly political ideas that do nothing but torment us. We’re currently experiencing this with the debt ceiling and may soon feel it to a far greater degree. Yet we don’t have it in us to get rid of any of them. It’s enough to make you think the most powerful force in human society isn’t the normal candidates like money or sex, but inertia.

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