The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Amid the debt ceiling madness, a lonely voice of sanity emerges

Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) at the State House in Augusta, Maine, on Nov. 1. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
5 min

More than 100 days in and the new Congress has done virtually nothing to resolve the top item on its agenda — avoiding a debt default with some sort of bipartisan budget deal. The partisan posturing and finger-pointing, the absence of any serious debate or negotiation: It’s been a master class in failed leadership and political dysfunction.

House Republicans, who created the showdown by refusing to raise the debt ceiling until Democrats agree to deep budget cuts, have expanded their list of ransom demands. They insist on remaking national energy policy to suit the oil and coal industries, throwing the unemployed off Medicaid and food stamps, defunding the IRS and canceling the cancellation of student debt. This fantasy wish list was worked out between Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s handpicked consigliere and the “five families” of the Republican caucus — a fitting metaphor for the party’s thuggish tactics.

Democrats, meanwhile, stubbornly refuse to negotiate, which they justify with the specious argument that there’s no link between the debt ceiling and annual budget deficits. Any Democrat who dares to talk aloud about a possible budget deal can expect a stern talking-to from Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) about the paramount importance of party unity. The only authorized Democratic talking point is the hyperbolic claim that any cuts to government spending would inflict unacceptable hardship and cruelty on the poor and middle class.

The impasse has been a golden opportunity for the dwindling band of centrists to show how serious legislating is done. But the only thing the so-called Problem Solvers Caucus dared to offer was a nothingburger proposal to appoint a blue-ribbon commission.

So it fell to Rep. Jared Golden, a pro-choice, pro-gun Democrat from a Trump district in the backwoods of Maine, to venture a reasonable plan to tame runaway budget deficits. Neither party would like it, but I think most Americans could accept it. In other words, an artful compromise.

Trim and boyish at 40, with steely eyes that look out from a freckled face, Golden is a former Marine who is as politically canny as he is courageous. “A hard-choices, tell-the-truth kind of guy,” gushes Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Jennifer Rubin

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Golden spent two months reading everything he could and crunching numbers with the wonks at the CRFB and the Tax Foundation before sitting down to write an eight-page letter to his constituents explaining his plan with remarkable clarity and conviction.

The letter starts by acknowledging the obvious political reality that in a deeply divided country with an evenly divided Congress, bipartisan compromise is inevitable. And it acknowledges the economic reality that running big deficits not only stokes inflation but risks triggering a debt spiral in which interest payments eventually consume the entire federal budget. The immediate challenge, he writes, is to stabilize deficits so the nation’s debt grows no faster than the nation’s income.

To do that, Golden sets a target of reducing borrowing by $250 billion a year in each of the next two years. Half would come through spending caps such as those floated by Republicans: capping inflation-adjusted “discretionary” spending (everything other than Social Security and Medicare) at last year’s levels, along with rescinding student debt cancellation and recapturing unspent covid funding. The other half would come from raising additional revenue in ways long favored by Democrats: raising the tax rate on big corporations to 25 percent, imposing a surtax on corporate stock buybacks and rescinding the Trump tax cut for individuals making more than $400,000 a year.

As yet, no colleague from either party has stepped forward to sign on to Golden’s framework. While many will privately acknowledge the fiscal logic of his proposal, and the inevitability of some compromise, they fear that stepping out of party lockstep might cost them the next election. Implicit in that fear is an assumption that most voters are too stupid or uninformed or impatient to listen to reasoned argument.

Golden is a walking refutation of such cynicism. He’s won three times in a solidly Republican district despite lackluster support from party leaders and millions of dollars in out-of-state money pouring in to defeat him. In 2020, he outperformed President Biden by 14 percentage points. And he did it not by pandering to voters or spinning them but by respecting them — and winning their respect in return.

“I get a lot of people say things like, I don’t often agree with you — but I like that you take the time to explain your thought process,’” he told me. In the political and media worlds, he explained, people thrive on conflict and have a simplistic way of thinking about voters. What they overlook, he said, “is that there are a giant number of people out there who would just like a functioning government.”

Walking from the Capitol after our conversation, I thought: Imagine if Congress had leaders like Jared Golden. Sadly, I couldn’t.