Submitted by Mike Appleton, Guest Blogger
Humorist Tom Bodett observed on NPR’s “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me” this weekend that if we raise the debt ceiling any higher, we won’t be able to paint it. In addition to being funny, his comment was more intelligent than most of what passes for debate on the issue.
Raising the debt ceiling is hardly a difficult decision to make, requiring that Congress answer only the following questions:
1. Are we unable with existing revenues to pay our debts as they become due?
2. Do we have the ability to borrow the funds necessary to cover the shortfall?
3. Will the additional borrowing push us over the existing debt ceiling?
If the answer to these questions is “yes,” the debt ceiling needs to be raised. Congress has always managed to get through the process rather easily, voting to increase the debt ceiling 74 times since 1962. So why the current impasse on a routine matter?
The answer, of course, is that the debate is about something other than the national debt. That something is the trilogy of programs known as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Republican efforts in the past to privatize Social Security disappeared in the Washington fog. The Ryan budget, which includes the elimination of Medicare, has as much chance of passage as I do of appointment to the Supreme Court. (Medicare is already getting hammered throughout the country, even as severe unemployment has increased the number of eligible recipients.)
But Republicans view the debt ceiling debate as an opportunity to move forward with their plans for the Great Dismantling, strongly encouraged by two factors. The first is the large number of freshmen Tea Party representatives who share with the average college radical the notion that compromise bespeaks a lack of moral integrity. The second is the President’s propensity to compromise first and ask for something in return later. The strategy has already borne fruit; the Obama administration has offered cuts in Social Security and Medicare without extracting a single binding promise on revenue increases. Fully expecting a complete collapse of Democratic nerve, Republicans are now treating the public to something resembling the drag racing scene in “Rebel Without A Cause.”
So is it nevertheless an honest debate? Not by a long shot. For one thing, everyone knows the debt ceiling must be increased regardless of any other considerations. Congressional hypocrisy is thicker than Louisiana sorghum on this point. The phrase “debt ceiling,” after all, is a misnomer. The limits imposed by the statute apply to borrowing authority. The actual debt ceiling is whatever Congress decides it will be through its enactment of spending bills. When Republicans exacted continuation of the Bush tax cuts last fall, they certainly understood that the additional debt burden would require increasing the debt ceiling. Therefore, opposing an increase in the statutory debt ceiling is equivalent to refusing to pay debts one has already incurred.
Moreover, there is nothing honest about hiding one’s real agenda. Insisting on spending cuts which one knows cannot be accomplished without seriously damaging so-called entitlement programs is stealth politics posing as principled resolve. The budget cut debate can take place at another time, and the Republican leadership knows it.
The mature solution is to terminate the present negotiations, adopt a reasonable debt ceiling increase as a stand-alone bill and take up spending and taxing measures separately. Bookies aren’t taking bets on political maturity in the present Congress.
Sources: CNN Money; Austin, D. Andrew and Levit, Mindy R., “The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases,” Congressional Research Service (Jan. 28, 2010).