The pass we are at is not an avoidable disruption. It is a disaster that has already begun to unfold, reversal of which cries out for bold action. The Boehner plan, or any other scheme that balks at forthrightly dealing with our financial straits, merely makes it more likely that our nation cannot survive as we have known it. In the shorter term, the Boehner plan ensures that, when serious steps are finally taken, the metastasizing debt disease will be trillions worse, if not terminal.
Equally wrongheaded as imagining that an existential threat can be allowed to fester untreated is the insistence on seeing the threat in political rather than substantive terms.
There is no doubt about why we are in a crushing economic disruption. Yes, the proximate cause is President Obama’s unprecedented spending spree — his follow-through on the campaign promise to change America fundamentally. But today’s Republican establishment shoulders plenty of the blame. In the first six years of the George W. Bush administration — when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, with Speaker Boehner then among the GOP’s House leaders — the debt ceiling went from $5.95 trillion to $8.97 trillion. It had taken a decade (from 1987 to 1997) to increase the ceiling by the $3 trillion it took to get to $5.95 trillion. Republicans took only six years to do it again. Under President Bush, who has reportedly whipped GOP lawmakers to vote for the Boehner plan, the national debt rose by almost $5 trillion, to $10.6 trillion — i.e., it nearly doubled.
Bush’s profligacy pales by Obama standards. The current president is spending the nation into oblivion. He has taken less than three years to run up almost $4 trillion in debt.
The most transparent administration in history doesn’t write down the positions it argues in closed budget meetings with congressional leaders. Senate Democrats, moreover, have stopped submitting annual budgets, though federal law requires them. Transparently, this is done to avoid an embarrassing paper trail, documenting trillions in deficits, projected as far as the eye can see. But you can’t non–paper over a catastrophe. The government now spends so much more than it takes in that 40 cents of every expended federal dollar is borrowed.
This cannot continue. Every day it is not dealt with is a day that we punish future generations. “Deficit spending” is a euphemism. If we were honest, we’d call it “deferred confiscatory tax spending” — we blithely party like there’s no tomorrow, and when tomorrow comes, our children and grandchildren get stuck with the unfathomable bill.
None of this is mysterious. It is easily verifiable. You don’t need a degree in economics to understand it. In fact, it is well understood: The country’s grasp of our dire straits is one reason spendthrift Republicans were ousted from power in 2006 and 2008, and it is the reason why President Obama led his party to a crushing electoral defeat just nine months ago — one in which Democrats were swept from power in the House, now barely cling to control of the Senate, and were routed in state races across the country.
Americans did not suddenly fall in love with Republicans. They remain wary of the GOP, and — as we’re seeing — for good reason. The electoral revolt was strictly a center-right nation’s revulsion against governance by the hard Left. Republicans reaped the benefits because they were the only alternative, not because the public is convinced that they’ve learned anything from their stint in the wilderness.
The main lesson that should have been learned but hasn’t been is this: While every issue has political overtones and consequences, that does not make every issue political in its essence. The debt-ceiling controversy is not, as Republican leadership and its cheerleaders maintain, about politics. It is not a matter of, “If we don’t handle this correctly, if we push this too far, if Americans think we’re too extreme, President Obama will be reelected.” The debt ceiling is about the debt, not about how politicians can optimally position themselves to evade accountability for the inevitable consequences of the debt.
We’ve gotten lost in the weeds here. Speaker Boehner’s proposed cuts are, in the main, illusory. But making them marginally bigger or more real is beside the point. The issue here is whether anything can justify adding $2.5 trillion to the government’s credit card. The point of discussing cuts was to rationalize a debt-ceiling rise that would be no greater than the cuts. The premise of this dollar-for-dollar exchange notion is utterly flawed: If I am maxed out on my credit line, my agreement to reduce my spending by $1,000 may justify not cutting up my credit card. It would not justify increasing my credit line by $1,000.