Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks with reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks with reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.

(Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Corporate Media Continues to Blow It on Coverage of Debt Ceiling Hostage Situation

It's simple: "Republicans drove up the national debt by giving huge tax breaks to the rich and major corporations—now they're trying to make the rest of us pay for it."

As negotiators for the White House and congressional Republicans continue their will-they-or-won't-they game with the global economy at risk, critics are calling out corporate media coverage of efforts to prevent a devastating U.S. default by raising the debt ceiling.

"There are three aspects to the substance and coverage of this debate that have been infuriating," said Revolving Door Project executive director Jeff Hauser in a statement Friday. "First, the notion that 'modest cuts' to spending are inconsequential."

"Second is the role of inflation," Hauser continued, charging that the brewing potential deal between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) "would be a catastrophe for government capacity, and coverage that ignores the role of inflation (hardly a low profile issue in 2023!) is wildly and indefensibly misguided."

"The notion that the president was trapped under the gun of McCarthy is ridiculous."

"Third, the notion that the president was trapped under the gun of McCarthy is ridiculous," he added. "Because the debt ceiling is an unconstitutional, incoherent excuse for a law and because there is an active lawsuit from the National Association of Government Employees [NAGE], Biden's status as a hostage merely reflects an advanced case of Stockholm Syndrome."

Given arguments that the president "has a wide number of ways out from the debt ceiling and no legal way to implement it," Hauser asserted, "the media needs to quit deferring to the debt ceiling's political theater and engage more with the essentially uncontroverted legal experts pointing out that it cannot be implemented in a constitutional manner."

The NAGE case has a hearing set for May 31, just days before the so-called X-date, or when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warns the government could run out of money absent a debt limit hike. The union's suit and subsequent request for emergency action by the court this month initially sparked some hope that Biden might act unilaterally to avoid a default based on the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says that "the validity of the public debt of the United States... shall not be questioned."

However, as Common Dreams reported earlier Friday, Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo told CNN's Poppy Harlow that the president won't invoke the 14th Amendment and "we don't have a Plan B that allows us to meet the commitments that we've made to our creditors, to our seniors, to our veterans, to the American people."

By taking the 14th Amendment off the table, "Biden might inexplicably be cornering himself," The Washington Post's Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent wrote in a Tuesday opinion piece. "Biden should not make it harder for himself to follow the Constitution in defense of the country if and when it's the only option left."

Even if the White House and McCarthy do strike a debt ceiling deal by the X-date, now June 5, there are potential long-term consequences from the president—and the press—normalizing the GOP's economic hostage-taking. Waldman and Sargent wrote:

As Georgetown law professor Anna Gelpern notes, there's danger in not being fully prepared to honor the country's obligations and in allowing the integrity of U.S. credit to remain under threat of future extortion efforts. "There's downside risk to telling the world Congress can keep doing this," Gelpern said, adding that the standoff is already undermining confidence in the U.S. government.

Paradoxically, the more Biden expresses reluctance about the 14th Amendment, the more it encourages the public to perceive the standoff as a conventional budget negotiation. By contrast, if Biden flatly declared he will not allow extreme demands to interfere with his constitutional duty, Gelpern argues, the debate would be about "whether threatening to tank existing U.S. obligations is a legitimate tool."

CNN political analyst and Princeton University history and public affairs professor Julian Zelizer wrote in a Thursday opinion piece that "regardless of the outcome, Republicans have already won this political war. Once again, the GOP has weaponized a routine process. In doing so, it has normalized an extreme tactic that should not be considered a legitimate tool of partisan combat."

"Although former President Barack Obama hoped to have quashed this tactic in 2013 when he stood firm against the Tea Party Republicans during another round of debt ceiling threats (the GOP managed to extract significant concessions in 2011 using a similar approach)," Zelizer added, "an extreme cohort of Republican legislators has shown that this high-risk maneuver is not going away."

That's thanks to not only Biden's willingness to negotiate with GOP hostage-takers rather than challenge the constitutionality of the debt ceiling statute, but also media coverage that has helped to "normalize Republican legislative terrorism," as The American Prospect's Ryan Cooper put it earlier this month, specifically calling out Axios, CNBC, and Punchbowl News.

In a Friday opinion piece for Common Dreams, University of California, Berkeley professor and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich took aim at "inexcusable" reporting from few other outlets:

I heard ABC News attribute the standoff on the debt ceiling to "polarization" in Congress. NPR blames the fight on "hyper-partisanship" in American politics. Reutersblames the stalemate on lawmakers "digging in on partisan positions."

"Partisan standoff" is the way most of the media is now characterizing the fight.

"Enough with the 'both sides' reporting on the debt ceiling," Reich demanded. "Republicans alone manufactured this looming disaster... The 'both sides' reporting is misleading the public and giving a free pass to McCarthy and his extremists."

Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) expressed similar frustration with the media during a Wednesday press conference. Caucus Whip Greg Casar (D-Texas) told journalists that "if the hostage gets hurt, you all should be asking the hostage-takers, 'Why did you do that?' not asking the hostage, 'Why didn't you pick the lock faster?'"

Some reporters refuse to blame Republicans for the current crisis, even though they are willing to tank the economy for a potential electoral advantage in 2024, noted CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), echoing an off-hand remark from Biden a few days earlier.

In a Friday opinion piece for Common Dreams, radio show host and author Thom Hartmann explained how the ongoing fight fits into a trend that began decades ago—and "it all started with a guy named Jude Wanniski, who literally transformed American politics with a plan that the American mainstream media, astonishingly, continues to ignore."

The GOP strategist's plan was that during Republican presidencies, policymakers should pursue huge tax cuts and uncontrolled spending that stimulate the economy and raise the national debt—then, "when a Democrat is in the White House, Republicans must scream about the national debt as loudly and frantically as possible," he summarized.

"Following Wanniski's script, Republicans are again squealing about the national debt and saying they will refuse to raise the debt ceiling, possibly crashing the U.S. economy," Hartmann wrote. "And, once again, the media is preparing to cover it as a 'Debt Ceiling Crisis!' rather than what it really is: a cynical political and media strategy devised by Republicans in the 1970s, fine-tuned in the 1980s, and since then rolled out every time a Democrat is in the White House."

Under the most recent GOP president—Donald Trump, who is seeking reelection in 2024—Republicans in Congress supported multiple debt limit hikes "while providing trillions in tax cuts for the rich," Reich stressed Friday, declaring that "McCarthy and his band of MAGA crazies don't give a fig about the national debt."

As Common Dreams reported Wednesday, while congressional Republicans continue to hold the economy hostage, they are crafting a soon-to-be-revealed tax cuts package that would further benefit wealthy individuals and corporations and add trillions to the deficit.

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