There is a dismaying symmetry about the debt-limit controversy. Today’s Left creates phony crises to rationalize action on its radically transformative program; today’s Right creates phony rationalizations to avoid addressing actual crises. Incrementally, yesterday’s radicalism becomes today’s norm.
The Right talks a good game about small government, constitutional government. But that is all it is: talk. When it gets down to brass tacks, like now, with our nation sinking into a death spiral of unsustainable, incalculable debt, the Right’s solution is to grow government while trusting that government will constrain government — at some future date, of course. And when someone has the temerity to say, “No, enough,” mainstream Republicans, aided by some in the conservative commentariat, are as quick as the Obama Left to marginalize that someone as an “extremist.”
So it was that Sen. John McCain, the very model of a progressive Rockefeller Republican, lambasted a surging GOP presidential hopeful, Rep. Michele Bachmann, for her uncompromising stance on the debt ceiling. By McCain’s Big Gummint lights, Bachmann is an extremist for refusing to indulge the notion that we should inflate by $2,500,000,000,000 (that’s not a typo) the credit line of a bankrupt nation that is officially $14,300,000,000,000 in the hole. (The true debt is more like $130,000,000,000,000 if we look beyond Uncle Sam’s Enronesque accounting practices.) And mind you, the $2.5 tril is just what’s necessary to get us through President Obama’s reelection, McCain’s 2008 campaign having already done its bit to ensure Obama’s election. Once the president’s second term is won, there would be nothing but trillions more in debt and debt-ceiling raises until, sooner rather than later, creditors stop the music and the country collapses.
Ironically, McCain’s manner of helping Obama this time is to frame Bachmann as Obama. As a senator running for president (which is pretty much all he did as a senator), Obama was famously intransigent in 2006, when Pres. George W. Bush sought an increase in the debt ceiling in order to finance the metastasizing welfare state wrought by insatiable leftist Democrats and Republican statists such as McCain. So now, McCain says Bachmann sounds like Obama, because she insists that the debt limit oughtn’t be raised by a dime. She needs to get with the program and agree to the borrowing of more trillions today in exchange for the promise of spending cuts . . . someday, no doubt the same day that fence gets built on the Mexican border.
But there is a huge difference. Senator Obama’s objection was crass political opportunism. He is as radical a redistributionist as has ever held high elected office in the United States, and his only real problem with Bush’s exorbitant spending and entitlement expansion is that they weren’t nearly enough for his tastes. When it came time to pay the freight — when it was certain the ceiling would be raised, so a nay vote made no practical difference — Senator Obama caviled about how bumping the debt limit signaled a failure of presidential leadership. His speech is so comically cynical in light of the last three years that it can’t be repeated often enough:
The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. government can’t pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our government’s reckless fiscal policies . . . Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that “the buck stops here.” Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better.
On March 20, 2006, when Obama performed this little soliloquy, Congress raised the debt ceiling from a little over $8 trillion to a little under $9 trillion. The move epitomized an orgy of government profligacy, responsible ultimately for the electoral routs that cost Republicans control of Congress and the White House. For all its outrageousness, though, the Bush-era binge doesn’t hold a candle to what followed.
In the five years since Obama’s Senate speech, the Democrats he leads have raised the debt ceiling by almost $5.5 trillion. To get a sense of what that means, it took over two centuries — from the adoption of the Constitution in 1787 until 1998 — for the United States to accumulate $5.5 trillion in debt. There has been a debt ceiling only since 1917 (and its current configuration did not take shape until 1939), but even by that shorter measuring stick, it took almost 80 years (i.e., until 1996) to bump up against a debt ceiling of $5.5 trillion. Obama has doubled that unfathomable amount in the blink of an eye.
And it’s not enough. It will never be enough. President Obama wants to add $2.5 trillion to our tapped-out credit card because, at the rocket speed of government borrowing, that is the minimum needed to get him through the election without any additional debt-limit crises. Such episodes would only call more attention to his promised “fundamental transformation” of the U.S. economy. If he gets his way on the debt ceiling and then wins a second term, that $2.5 trillion will be chump change: It will be impossible to calculate the additional trillions confiscated from the producers, the young, and the unborn for redistribution to Leviathan’s clientele of cronies, unionized bureaucrats, and subsidized sloth.
Our debt is not just a political problem — it is an existential threat. Contrary to McCain’s bluster, the position taken by Bachmann and her allies is not political posturing. It is a defensive stand to save us from Obama’s transformation — which is to say, from doom. It is a stand that says the government needs to figure out how to make do on $14.3 trillion. Only a short time ago, conservatives considered it extreme for government to need a $9 trillion credit line. Now, with the credit line at $14.3 trillion and rising, somehow Bachmann is the extremist, and we’re to see as the adults in the room the guys who say, “Let’s give Obama two or three trillion more, as long as we can pretend we’re not responsible for the catastrophe we all know is inevitable.”
That the political class makes this call is to be expected. Its members are, after all, the ones who got us here. And, as night follows day, their “solution” is the ritual that got us here: Increase borrowing now to cover unaffordable spending now, with the illusory promise that, somewhere down the road, a future Congress they cannot bind will summon the fortitude to make the painful cuts they cannot bring themselves to make. In the interim, they’ll fantasize about “growing” our way out of the death spiral and make believe that tax cuts will magically generate the revenue necessary to sustain the unsustainable.
What surprises is the degree to which the punditocracy is swallowing the Kool-Aid. Take the normally sensible Kimberley A. Strassel. Her weekly Wall Street Journal column praises a proposal by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. The McConnell plan, which the Journal’s editors also endorsed, is said to be a master stroke that would transfer to Obama unilateral power to increase the debt in exchange for his being tagged with unilateral blame for the disastrous fallout.
Put aside the suspension of disbelief Senator McConnell and Ms. Strassel would have us entertain — namely, that the Obamedia, having cowed Republicans into agreeing to this scheme, would stand silent while their guy takes the eventual political hit, never reminding the public that it was possible thanks only to congressional Republicans. What’s truly remarkable is Ms. Strassel’s reasoning for why this gambit is purportedly better than refusing to authorize more borrowing:
Despite campaigning on the Constitution, most [House Republicans] appear to have missed the whole “separation of powers” bit. You know, the part that provides a presidential veto. Republicans cannot run government from the House alone, yet many have bought into their own debt-limit rhetoric. Rather than see this as the failed gamble it is, they truly believe they have the leverage to make this president give them all they want.
It is Ms. Strassel who appears to have missed class the day they taught that “whole ‘separation of powers’ bit.” McConnell’s scheme is designed to do what the Constitution forbids: endow the chief executive with Congress’s enumerated power “to borrow money on the credit of the United States.” This malfeasance, moreover, would be achieved by a convoluted procedure that makes a mockery of the Constitution’s legislative process: Congress never affirmatively acts to approve the presidential debt-limit increase; it merely declines to reject his “request” for a higher ceiling. That is the fig leaf under which McConnell figures Republicans can hide their authorization of our national suicide.
The genius of separation of powers is that it enables each branch to thwart the excesses of the others. The Constitution puts Congress in control of both the purse and the government’s borrowing authority. When the House exploits these powers, it is neither “running government from the House alone” nor ignoring the president’s veto power. It is telling the president, “no.” As Ms. Strassel’s usually excellent columns often demonstrate, the president still exercises plenty of power over the running of government. Nor need he accede to House Republican budget-cutting priorities — he still has his veto. But lawmakers don’t have to underwrite his Goliath vision of the Nanny State. They get to tell him that he’s got “only” $14.3 tril to work with.
On that score, my friend National Review editor Rich Lowry, in the course of rightly advising Republicans not to cave on Obama’s demand for a grand deal that gets him through the election, laments that a flat refusal to extend the debt ceiling is impractical. He criticizes naysayers who roll their eyes at proposals for a raise in the ceiling accompanied, dollar-for-dollar, by significant spending cuts. “Too many [House Republicans],” he concludes, “are opposed in principle. Never mind that none of them has a plan to cut federal spending by roughly 40 percent in two weeks’ time, which is what running up against the debt limit entails.”
Here is the problem with that: There will never be a plan to cut federal spending by 40 percent. Nor, absent absolute necessity, will the ruling class ever adopt a plan to cut the even greater amounts required to pay down our ocean of debt (rather than just pay the interest) and live consistently within our means while remaining reasonably prepared for aggression by enemies known and unknown. (You may recognize the latter as the thing for which you actually need a federal government.)
To know this, all one need consider is the Ryan budget passed by the House. Rep. Paul Ryan went as far as the political climate would allow to inject some sanity into federal spending. But if we peel away the atmospherics and get down to reality, the plan is modest at best.
While the Left derides Ryan for “cutting” trillions in spending, all he actually cuts — at least in the first decade or so — is the ungodly rate of deficit spending Obama envisions. We would still be adding trillions to the debt, such that, as I’ve noted before, the Republicans who voted for the Ryan budget have already implicitly called for raising the debt ceiling to more than $20 trillion, notwithstanding their current protestations against raising it beyond $14.3 trillion. Ryan’s plan does not even purport to balance the budget until 2040 or so, which is about 15 Congresses from now, not a single one of which would be bound to adhere to Ryan’s “Roadmap.” The Ryan budget is thus nothing more than a step in the right direction, and nothing close to a solution.
Yet, following Obama’s lead, the Left and the press have flayed Ryan. He made a mild attempt to turn the Titanic around while assuring every constituency that their goodies are safe for another decade or two. And so he’s been made a villain. His proposal has no chance of passing in the Senate, let alone of becoming law.
Even the good guys in government are in denial about the depth of our extremis. This is human nature: Nothing happens without hard deadlines. Overwhelming, seemingly intractable problems are never confronted until we are cornered.
Bachmann’s stance on the debt has political overtones, of course. But it is not essentially political, as was Senator Obama’s in 2006. It is it is adult acceptance of the facts that Obama’s spending will ruin the economy, that Congress has the power and the duty to rein in spending, and that the only plausible way to stop a spendaholic is to cut off his access to more credit. Unlike Senator Obama, Representative Bachmann is not thoughtlessly saying “no” to a credit hike. She is saying that the government takes in about $172 billion per month, out of which it can easily avoid default by paying the nearly $30 billion of interest due to bondholders.
Of the remaining $142 billion, more than two-thirds (about $100 billion) would pay entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid). No one will touch those, leaving about $42 billion left for everything else. That gets exhausted quickly when one realizes that, before all the dubious roles government has taken on, $35 billion would be needed for national defense — i.e., payments to military vendors and for troop salaries — to be fully funded.
In the end, would there be deficit spending and a consequent need to raise the debt ceiling? Undoubtedly — but not right away, and not until it became obvious that we can easily do without much that government does. And here is the difference: This scenario drastically alters the underlying assumption of funding government; the baselines revert to zero. Funding has to be justified, item by item. We don’t just hope and pray that cuts will happen someday — they have to happen now, because there simply won’t be money for everything.
President Obama will be politically accountable. If he raids the defense budget to pay for “green energy” or the priorities of his union cronies, he will have to run on that record, just as Republicans will have to run on the merits or demerits of forcing him into this predicament. Meanwhile, the credit markets get to see that we are serious about putting our house in order, which is crucial, because, if our borrowing costs rise to more historically normal levels, our interest payments will more than double.
That is the only kind of plan that has a chance to work: a crisis that makes reduced spending unavoidable. The Framers did not rely on the good intentions of Washington politicians, however earnest. They divided authority and empowered accountable public officials to check each other’s recklessness. The duty of Republicans in Congress is not to set the table for the next election. It is to use their power to stop President Obama’s destruction of the economy. If we are ruined, what good will it do for Republicans to natter that it was all Obama’s fault?
Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief-of-staff, who got out while the getting was good, perspicaciously observed that a crisis should never be allowed to “go to waste.” “It’s an opportunity,” he explained, “to do things you could not do before.” The difference now is that the crisis is real and potentially fatal. It is time to do what could not be done before, not rationalize why not doing it is good politics.
— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.