One reason that congressional Republicans are able to get away with fake concerns about fiscal responsibility is that mainstream media outlets let them. The New York Times’ September 23 piece, “As Debt Default Looms, Yellen Faces Her Biggest Test Yet,” shows another piece of the puzzle as it puts the burden on Democrats — more specifically, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen — to change Republicans’ minds about obviously destructive behavior, rather than actually holding Republicans accountable.
The Times piece never once mentions a crucial fact: Republicans are threatening to use the filibuster to impose a 60-vote threshold, thus hindering the Democratic majority in Congress from being able to avert a default on U.S. debt. (Other mainstream media outlets have been treating the potential U.S. debt default as “good news” or an “opportunity” for the very Republicans who are provoking the crisis.)
The sub-headline of the piece offers a typical both-sides narrative, describing the ongoing debt ceiling brinkmanship as “a standoff between Democrats and Republicans.” Indeed, the entire article seems to have gotten the narrative backward: It contains numerous examples of how Republicans are pushing the crisis, but leads with the narrative of it all being Yellen’s problem to figure out.
The fourth paragraph seems to have inadvertently demonstrated just how dishonest this whole framing is: “But in the face of congressional dysfunction, she has been thrust into a political role, trying to convince reticent Republican lawmakers that their refusal to lift the debt cap — which limits the government’s ability to borrow money — could lead to a financial collapse.”
But if this is “congressional dysfunction,” it appears that Yellen has had to try to cajole only “Republican lawmakers.” After all, no such discussions with Democratic lawmakers are ever mentioned. Indeed, the only quote from any congressional Democrat is a public remark by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who said, “This is a credit-card bill that we owe.”
The Times piece nearly acknowledges Republican dishonesty, in the seventh paragraph: “Ms. Yellen has reminded Republicans in the calls that they have been willing to join Democrats in lifting the debt ceiling in the past, and that raising the cap allows the U.S. to pay its existing bills and does not authorize new spending.”
But afterward, the piece uncritically quotes Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), who claimed that Democrats were the ones “playing a dangerous political game with our economy and it’s absolutely unnecessary.”
The piece also quotes Brian McGuire, former chief of staff to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and a Trump-era Treasury Department staffer, who said: “If I were advising Secretary Yellen, I’d suggest she be highly skeptical of the Democratic strategy on the debt limit.”
The article closes with another quote from a former Bush administration official, brazenly chalking up congressional Republican hypocrisy on the debt ceiling to “Washington.”
Tony Fratto, a Treasury official during the Bush administration, lamented that Ms. Yellen is operating without any leverage. Democrats, he said, appeared to have miscalculated when they thought that Republicans would be too ashamed to block a debt limit vote after supporting a suspension of the borrowing cap when President Donald J. Trump was in office.
“I think that was in the ‘hope’ category,” Mr. Fratto said. “This is Washington in 2021 — your hopes will be dashed.”
The Washington Post has previously reported on the potential economic consequences of a default: “Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, found that a prolonged impasse over the debt ceiling would cost the U.S. economy up to 6 million jobs, wipe out as much as $15 trillion in household wealth, and send the unemployment rate surging to roughly 9 percent from around 5 percent.”
And the closer the country gets to that tipping point, the media need to give the public narratives that are about more than just “Washington” and focus on the people deliberately sabotaging the efforts to avoid the cliff.