If this post in Reuters is to be believed, roughly 46% of Americans are not paying attention to the debt ceiling war raging in D.C. Given, however, that TCJ readers tend to be well informed and attentive to what is happening in the country and the world at large, I would guess that many of you have been paying attention. I will confess here and now that I have been following it almost obsessively and things are reaching a fever pitch as the proverbial clock counts down to the fictional “zero hour” of August 2nd, the date where, supposedly, the federal government will run out of money.
Given that fever pitch, it is only right that I should throw some gas on the fire and go on record with some analysis and predictions.
Something profound happened in November 2010. Whether you are a Democrat, Republican, Independent or something else, a veritable, electoral tsunami swept the country in November with voters throwing out politicians who had been complicit with the Obama spending spree of 2009 and 2010. One message, extremely clear and simple, rang out: stop! Stop the spending and the borrowing that fuels the spending. Republicans campaigned across the country on the message of reining in spending and tackling the exploding federal debt. And they got elected largely on that basis. There should be no reason, therefore, that politicians and pundits in Washington, D.C. voice such shock and disbelief that the Republican-controlled House, for seemingly the first time in history, is seriously concerned about spending and, in particular, enabling another mountain of spending by raising the debt ceiling.
Consider, too, that what we are seeing in the debt ceiling battle is the direct result and culmination of the battle over the 2011 Budget (or lack thereof). Recall that the prior Congress had not passed any sort of budget (as required by law) in 2011 but had, instead been functioning according to “continuing resolutions” that avoided a government shutdown. When Republicans took the House in January 2011, they let it be known that the continuing resolutions had to end. Unfortunately for all of us, the deal brokered by Rep. John Boehner that allowed a 2011 Budget to pass did little or nothing to cut actual, 2011 spending and it was clear to everyone that the real opportunity to effect spending reforms and budget reductions would occur when the debt ceiling was reached. As James Pethokoukis observed in July, the crisis is not a government “default” but just another, looming shutdown based on a lack of funds to keep all parts of government operating. The chart attached to his article convincingly lays out the revenues coming in to the federal government versus the outlays that come due in August 2011:
That is the context in which we find ourselves.
As I study the news and opinion articles, I have been impressed with a few politicians who seem to get it. One of them, elected in the 2010 Wave, is Senator Marco Rubio from Florida. Here is the link to a July 30th speech he gave in the Senate that is stellar (Warning– it is a 14-minute clip, but is well worth the time):
Sen Rubio re debt ceiling on YouTube
Rubio gets it.
He understands that the issue confronting Congress is so much bigger than a so-called “government default.” Rubio gives a very good, initial summary of the actual problem: the Federal government takes in roughly $180 Billion each month but spends roughly $300 Billion each month, forcing the U.S. to borrow something like 40 cents of every dollar it spends. This is not difficult to understand for anyone who has had to manage their own finances, let alone run a business. The attitude in the Capitol that such an imbalance between income and expenditures is in any way tolerable (and there are many in D.C. who think the U.S. is not spending enough) tells us everything we need to know about the sick culture of our national leadership.
But Rubio goes beyond just the summary of the problem writ large. He precisely points out the deliberate inaction of the Senate and White House in refusing to propose any plan of any kind that would address the collision with the $14.2 Trillion debt ceiling, a collision that has been clearly anticipated since at least January 2011. Rubio, in fact, accuses the Senate majority and the White House of manufacturing the “debt crisis” by sheer political calculation that the American people will hold Republicans responsible if the debt ceiling is not raised. This “crisis,” in other words, is only a crisis because Obama and Reid wanted a crisis.
Contrast Rubio’s remarks with the question posed by Senator John Kerry at about the 7:40 mark in the video. Kerry was apparently miffed that Rubio would dare to quote then Senators Obama and Biden in 2006 and Sen. Harry Reid in 2007, all of whom spoke against and voted against raising the debt ceiling then. Kerry sought to distinguish those embarrassing votes in 2006 and 2007 by pointing out that their votes did not really matter because the debt ceiling increase was being approved by large margins at the time.
Does everyone catch the implication here? Kerry is giving away the game. In essence, Kerry is saying that you cannot take anything said by Obama, Biden or Reid seriously in 2006 and 2007 because, afterall, everyone knew that the debt ceiling was going to be raised so there was no harm done by them voting against it or railing against it. All that talk in 2006 and 2007 was so much puffery, no one took it seriously. Now, it’s serious. So anyone who speaks out against raising the debt ceiling must really mean it and that means, ipso facto, that such a person is a “terrorist” or a “suicide bomber.” Kerry even went so far as to call those, prior votes and speeches “truly symbolic.”
At the end, Rubio makes the most important point of all, that the real crisis facing the U.S. is its apparent inability to reduce spending to a point that the bond rating agencies consider sustainable. This is the real threat to Americans, not the manufactured crisis of hitting the predetermined debt ceiling. The debt ceiling could be raised $2.4 Trillion dollars tomorrow (as the President has demanded) but that does not solve anything. Until there is a plan in place that fundamentally alters the spending trajectory of the U.S., the rating agencies have made it clear that the U.S. is on the brink of losing its AAA rating which will inevitably lead to higher interest on the Federal debt and have a ripple effect throughout the U.S. economy as states and lenders are forced to pay more for borrowing. Rubio likens the situation to a house on fire and the calls by Senator Kerry and others to compromise make no sense when the compromises do nothing to extinguish the flames burning down the house.
Now comes the thoroughly disheartening news via Hot Air. Apparently the professional politicians are on the verge of letting the American House burn down.
According to Ed Morrisey, citing an ABC News report:
ABC reports this morning that Congressional leaders have already begun briefing their caucuses on the eleventh-hour deal that emerged from the White House last night. Jonathan Karl notes that the deal is contingent on getting enough support from each House caucus to form a majority, and in the Senate to avoid a filibuster. We’ll come back to that in a moment, but Karl also updates the story on the deal. The topline numbers are apparently $2.4 trillion in matching spending cuts and debt-ceiling raises instead of $2.8 trillion, but now both are split into two parts:
The current framework would give the president the authority to raise the debt ceiling in two parts: roughly half of it now and the balance at the end of the year.
Each increase would be subject to a Congressional resolution of disapproval.
If Congress voted to disapprove that increase, however, the President could veto their disapproval.
The AP reported earlier on the $2.4 trillion number, too, although they say the cuts will be “slightly more” than the debt-ceiling boost. That’s still enough to get Barack Obama past the 2012 election, but not by much. It guarantees that the debt ceiling will be a 2012 election issue, although by now that was a given anyway.
However, the added McConnell wrinkle is interesting — and potentially a big win for Republicans. Essentially, Republicans get to claim credit for the cuts while laying blame for the debt increases on Obama. If they “disapprove,” Obama will veto the disapproval and end up owning all of the political baggage for the debt-ceiling increases. That’s a steep price to pay for Obama just to protect himself through the next election, although he could turn it on its ear and refuse to veto the second increase disapproval and force this fight all over again. That would, however, put the country back in “crisis” mode, and that would still be all on Obama.
Despite the triumphant tone of Morrisey’s post, the reality is that Obama gets to borrow at least $2.4 TRILLION more dollars (although it remains to be seen whether there will be enough investors willing to toss another gigantic load of money into the U.S. black hole without higher interest rates or whether the Treasury will be forced, yet again, to buy up some portion of the offered bonds itself) while the so-called “cuts” seem to be the same, phony 10-year reductions in spending that will never materialize.
Morrisey provides more details on the pending deal here:
I expect plenty of hyperventilating at the term “Super Committee,” but it’s basically the kind of ad hoc committee that Congress can authorize at any time. It sounds a lot like the BRAC process used by Congress to identify military bases for closure. The prohibition on net tax revenue gains is a big, big win for Republicans if it holds. I should note that Jimmie Bise in his post believes that the second round of cuts might be actual cuts; if so, then this is an even bigger win.
Again, the celebrating is way too premature. Once again, legislation is being considered without any public debate or open discussion. It is all being hashed out in private, back-room deals and then presented, at the last minute, under a pressure cooker of phony, Media-inspired hysteria, for a take-it-or-leave-it vote— yeah, the kind of vote where you are burned at the stake as a heretic if you vote “no.” Will anyone have read this deal by the time for voting, or will this be another Obamacare monstrosity that has to be passed, as Pelosi put it, “to know what is in it.” We all know how these surprises turn out.
But wait, Ed Morrisey says that there may be a requirement in the deal that if the spending cuts recommended by the Super-Duper Committee are not adopted by the end of December 2011, then the House and Senate have to at least vote on a balanced budget amendment (or perhaps actually pass a balanced budget amendment to send to the States to approve) or automatic cuts will be made to Defense spending and Medicaid (among other things). The details are slim, but the cuts to Defense have been rumored to be draconian and far worse than the cuts to Medicaid which would only affect care providers and not the beneficiaries. How’s that for a deal? Republicans get to choose which poison they most prefer. Hooray!
There is no way that the Democrat-controlled Senate is going to approve a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. Why should they? The only penalty is the terrible, awful “cuts” to Medicaid that come out of the hide of the evil doctors, insurance companies and drug companies. I can hear the Democrats whining to the gullible Republicans in Bre’r Rabbit fashion, “Oh please, please don’t throw me in that briar patch!”
Just to show that I can do more than complain about the bad deals the GOP is considering, I will offer at least a partial, near-term solution here.
If the Republicans cannot bear to stick to the three, different bills they have passed (the 2012 Budget, the Cut, Cap and Balance Bill and the last version passed in the House, dubbed “Boehner 3.0″), at the very least, the Republicans should pass a short-term (read here 60-day) increase in the debt ceiling that will get the government through the rest of the 2011 Fiscal year that ends on September 30th. Use that additional time to keep hammering away for real, immediate, tangible, meaningful cuts to the 2012 Budget. If the Senate and White House will not agree to substantial and immediate cuts in the 2012 Budget, the House should start passing individual appropriation bills, starting with the most politically volatile items first: Defense, Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and, perhaps, unemployment benefits. At the same time, the House can pass small, incremental debt ceiling increases that will require some level of immediate cuts to government spending— enough, in other words to pay the debt service and, say, 90% of the government expenses for the next 60 days, but not 100%. It will be up to the Senate and Obama to ignore or vote these bills down, but at least the House will have taken concrete steps to provide spending reductions. The House can continue to pass these bills with actual spending reductions that will reduce the need for future debt ceiling increases. It will also short-circuit the inevitable “crisis” of a government shutdown when the Democrats refuse to pass a 2012 Budget in the Senate and then demand another continuing resolution.
This, by the way, is in stark contrast to the approach taken by Obama, Reid and Boehner that calls for spending reductions over 10 years. Forget these 10 year plans! This is not the Soviet Union. Even the Politburo was not delusional enough to think that they could come up with ten year plans. Five years of fantasy at a time was enough for them.
To conclude this nice, little rant, it is just pathetic to consider that the GOP is on the verge of caving in, yet again, to panic legislation. If this happens, it is time for fiscally conservative Americans to seriously consider ditching the Republican party in favor of a third party. Or, rather, a second party since the GOP is, for all legislative purposes, no different than the Democrats.