Partisan debt ceiling politics exasperating and dangerous

Former Senator Alan Simspon, a Wyoming Republican, just about summed up my reaction to the debt ceiling impasse. He said that the extent to which pettiness has overcome patriotism is nothing short of disgusting. Despite Republican longstanding charges about Obama’s failure to embrace “American exceptionalism,” it is not he who is prepared to risk the economic consequences of failing to honor the full faith and credit of the United States, for the first time in its history. It is not Obama who’s willing to have the US dollar lose its “dominant role in the international financial system,” spook bond markets, have our creditors unload their investments in American debt, dramatically force up borrowing costs, and plunge us into another recession.
The debt ceiling law is a “pointless, dangerous historical relic”  of World War I, which virtually no other advanced economy has. But few in Congress have the testicular fortitude to face the fact and repeal it. It’s too good a political pinata for posturing by an opposition party. Senator Obama did it with George W. Bush’s request. But after a ritual charade, in which individual solons get to vamp for CSPAN, Congress traditionally votes to honor our debts and raise the ceiling.

This year is different. Today’s impasse seems at least as much a function of hostility within the Republican Party as between Republicans and Democrats. Under the circumstances, the schism between Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor is contemptible.

The split seems driven as much by Cantor’s personal ambitions as his ideological rigidity. Playing to the most rigid ideologues on the right, Cantor undercut Boehner, opting for a smaller package that entailed cuts without new revenues and walked out of earlier budget talks.

As the President said, there is a “moral imperative to deal with the deficit in a meaningful way.” The big package Boehner and he were working on would tackle sacred cows on both sides – cutting spending even for defense and health and, gasp, raising revenues by closing loopholes. And they weren’t even closing loopholes before 2013. (God forbid that cutting the perks for hedge fund managers and owners of corporate jets might even remotely be suspected of dampening enthusiasm for job creation!)

We all need to realize that a default is not an abstraction: it means higher costs on car loans, credit card borrowing and mortgages. Real conservatives should oppose that.

I’d like to think this is just political theater, a game of chicken, leading up to – and, at the precipice, swerving away from – economic calamity, a strategy designed to wring out maximum budget concessions from the Democrats. But it seems too real to be just a “game” of chicken, and the risk is that, if the GOP refuses any kind of compromise, we’ll all end up fried.

The Speaker tried earlier this week to warn House Republicans that “they will quickly lose leverage in the debate as the country gets closer to the Aug. 2 debt default deadline and Wall Street” pushes for a deal. Right on cue, the Chamber of Commerce warned of dire consequences. But is anyone on the GOP right listening ?

In May, Boehner decried the nation’s debt as a “moral threat” and promised “real leadership,” not just kicking the can down the road. Three months later he’s wilting from the $4 trillion bargain he recently favored.

The Republican Pary, as David Brooks eloquently pointed out, may be more of a “psychological protest” than a “practical governing alternative.” Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform has scared congressmen and presidential candidates alike (including John Boehner and Mitt Romney) into signing a no-tax pledge, which Tea Party members treat as more sacred than their oaths to support the Constitution and keep the country running. (Remember, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush both took the pledge and raised taxes.) Norquist is closer to a Charles Manson anarchist than he is to an Edmund Burke conservative. Once again, Norquist’s followers are chugging the Kool Aid. (And nowadays, even Edmund Burke would have a primary challenger!)

The President’s strategy of laying claim to the middle, reengaging the Independents who helped him win in 2008, is good economics and politics, but people need more education. As David Leonhardt pointed out in today’s Times, politicians continue to imply we can turn the clock back to an era of free lunches, in which we can have the world’s largest military, highest medical costs, and some of the lowest tax rates.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who wants to do nothing that might advantage the President, now is proposing a convoluted solution that would give Obama the power to raise the ceiling and, in doing so, set the President up for attacks he failed to deal responsibly with the national debt. The NY Times supports this fallback idea. Obama’s hope would be that voters blame Congress more. But absent a real deal, isn’t it better for Obama, the law professor, to simply use the clear language of the 14th amendment and say the Constitution made him do it?
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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