On Friday, House Republicans voted to remove Ilhan Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee over past statements made regarding Israel and the US military. This surprised no one, as the run-up to this vote was widely covered in the press the week prior.
The day before, House Republicans approved Omar's election to the committee via unanimous consent. This was not covered by any major news outlet, aside from a tweet by former Libertarian House member Justin Amash of Michigan.
Effectively, House Republicans voted her on the committee on Thursday so they could vote her off on Friday, focusing this week's conversation on issues such as racism and patriotism and hitting the snooze button on more pressing issues that are far more difficult to deal with.
Among those issues is that of the nation's finances. Two weeks prior to Omar's hiring and firing, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announced her agency was taking “extraordinary measures” to keep the government running, as it had run out of money sooner than anticipated.
As with the vote on Omar's removal, the run-up to the vote to raise the debt ceiling will dominate the 24-hour news cycle and inevitably end with the House voting in favor of the move so the government can borrow money to pay bills it's obliged by law to pay. The consequences of this particular episode of political theater are far direr.
In a recent conversation I had with Marc Goldstein of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, he discussed how the worst-case scenario is repeated political brinksmanship over the debt ceiling causing a panic in the markets, leading to a loss of faith in US debt and a global financial crisis. (You can listen to the full conversation here)
The best-case scenario is a slow-motion car crash where debt service payments take up a larger portion of the federal budget at the expense of investment in areas such as education and infrastructure. Over the long term, this would mean a less competitive US economy that's less likely to outgrow decades of accumulated debt.
Both can be avoided via a series of measures no competent politician interested in reelection would ever vote for. Without any increase in taxes, here's what it would take to balance the budget in 10 years:
A 25% cut in all federal spending, including popular programs such as Social Security and Medicaid.
A 50% cut in all spending if defense and veterans' benefits are taken off the table.
An 85% cut in all spending if you add Social Security and Medicaid to the list of protected line items.
The picture gets a little rosier with tax increases, but budget cuts would still be involved.
We find ourselves in a political paradox where the body that holds the purse strings of the government is continually running for re-election, and debt markets appear more than willing to provide unlimited credit at no cost. If we game this out, the most likely outcome is that we keep arguing over committee assignments and how much money the federal government gave to drag queens during the pandemic until it all explodes.
This is where the press has been particularly negligent. Since the start of the Trump Era, the press has focused on giving oxygen to one or both sides of a manufactured controversy rather than alerting the American public to the fact the controversy is manufactured in the first place.
The press's role should be to make the American public aware when they're being played. In their coverage of Omar's removal and so many prior instances, they've instead chosen to be an active participant in the process.
Of course, talking about politicians fighting over committee assignments is a much easier way to capture an audience than going over the boring, depressing math of the national debt, just as fighting over committee assignments is a much easier way to win elections.
Underlying all this is a key problem - that those in office win elections by appealing to their party's base. This is a direct result of a primary system where the choices of more moderate voters who vote in November elections are determined by the most extreme voters who prefer political theater to the compromise and consensus-building involved in governing.
The good news in all this is that reforms to this system are picking up steam. Nevada voters approved a ballot measure that would change their system of elections to one known as final-five voting - which removes the advantage more polarizing candidates have in partisan primaries.
A similar system is in place in Alaska and has proven to deliver candidates more inclined to seek common ground in the interests of passing legislation, much to the frustration of the partisan base.
The worst-case scenario from these reforms is a return to the days when news shows were boring. We should be so lucky.