Back to News & Commentary

Is the Debt Ceiling a Civil Liberties Issue?

Laura W. Murphy,
Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
Share This Page
July 29, 2011

Even if the debt ceiling is raised, hard decisions will be made about which federal programs will continue and which ones won’t. The civil liberties consequences of those choices are not entirely predictable, but some are.

We can already see that higher unemployment rates and the foreclosure crisis are creating a widening racial wealth gap. Stocks and bonds are not yielding the same return for pensions and 401Ks that working people earned and depend on for their survival in retirement. The middle class is shrinking and poverty is deepening. That has implications for groups like the ACLU – for their policy work, for their litigation strategies, for their membership initiatives, and for their fundraising goals.

The ACLU believes that "natural" economic differences alone cannot explain widespread poverty. Throughout the ACLU’s 90-year history, we have observed this country's history of unequal treatment because of race, sex, ethnic background, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability to be significant contributors to economic circumstance. Out of proportion to their numbers, the poor are denied adequate legal representation, due process, the right to be free from unlawful searches, seizures and arrests, and other constitutional guarantees.

The ACLU has long documented policing practices that target people for loitering, walking and driving while black and brown. The social safety net – a series of federal programs that were designed to help prevent people from being plunged into abject poverty – Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and now the Affordable Care Act --may face radical restructuring because a majority in the House of Representatives says the U.S. cannot afford these programs Yet, this Congress also says that eliminating tax breaks for the wealthiest and least diverse 1 percent of our population -- something that would create more revenue – is not an option.

Helping the poor and those on the brink of poverty is deemed too costly, yet Congress does not hesitate to spend nearly $700 billion on war and defense spending (with $80 billion devoted to finding an estimated 4,000 terrorists worldwide) and domestic national security, such as spying, surveillance and airport grope-downs.

As a nation we have made policy choices that allow wasteful spending on military interventions, targeted killings and drones, secret prisons abroad, border fences, funding for local police fusion centers (designed to find terrorists but too often focus on peace activists, environmentalists, and other political advocates with no history of violence), and law enforcement computer systems that don’t work. This is in lieu of civil rights enforcement programs in the Justice Department, adequate and equal spending for public education, paying for safe and legal abortions even for military women who are raped, humane prison conditions and long-delayed employment non-discrimination protections for LGBT workers.

The Obama Administration said it costs $700,000 more per year to incarcerate detainees in Guantanamo than in a U.S.-based federal prison, but this Congress stubbornly refuses to allow detainees to be tried in federal court. And immigration costs are skyrocketing. Just last month the House passed an appropriations bill giving the Department of Homeland Security over $2 billion (a record-high) to detain immigrants, even though illegal border crossings have nosedived to their lowest levels in years and violent crime rates nationwide are at their lowest rate in nearly four decades.

The controversy over the debt ceiling is a totally manufactured debate that came about because many Republican House members signed a pledge not to vote to raise it. But the widening economic crisis is real. It will have very real implications for the ACLU’s work for decades to come.

The elections in 2012 will be a test as to whether we elect leaders who will deepen the economic crisis on the backs of the poor and middle class, or whether we choose people who care both about civil liberties and strengthening the economic conditions of a majority of Americans. We need to convince people to vote as if our lives and livelihood depend on it, because they do.

Learn more about civil liberties: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page