Mitch McConnell wanted you to know he was livid on Thursday. The Senate was about to Greece the wheels for adding yet another trillion and change to President Obama’s yet-again tapped-out credit card. “More spending, more debt,” brayed the minority leader. “That’s what we’ve gotten from this administration.” Well, no, Senator, that’s what we’ve gotten from you.
Yes, I know, Obama is the one driving us off the cliff. But as McConnell and his fellow Republicans are well aware, he couldn’t have filled his tank without them — and they are the guys who got us halfway up the summit before handing the president the car keys. No one is falling for this week’s debt-increase “disapproval” charade, the stage for which was set by last summer’s sleight-of-hand, when Republicans agreed to borrow another $2.4 trillion. As if to prove that Obama has not cornered the market on cynicism, the GOP apparently feels the need to insult your intelligence while it helps our latter-day Robin Hood take from the unborn to give to the insatiable.
For the record, it was Republicans who nearly doubled the national debt during the Bush years — increasing it by almost $5 trillion. Some context: It had taken the nation over 200 years to accumulate roughly the same amount of debt rung up from 2001 through 2008 — a time during most of which, besides holding the White House, Republicans held the Senate (with McConnell in the leadership, first as whip and later as leader) and the House (with now-speaker John Boehner in the leadership, first as a committee chairman, then as leader).
Of course, for the Left, enough is never enough. So when Obama took over, he made the GOP look positively stingy — running up more debt in half the time, with perennial trillion-dollar deficits projected as far as the eye can see. With debt rising about $4 billion per day and each citizen’s share nearing $50,000, frightened voters opted to give Republicans a second chance, electing them in historic numbers in the 2010 midterms. This was not because they suddenly loved Republicans. They didn’t — and don’t. It was because the GOP was the only available alternative. And it was because leaders such as McConnell and Boehner, affecting a chastened pose, promised that if given the opportunity, they’d slam on the brakes.
Last summer, they had their big chance: Debt hit $14.3 trillion, the statutory ceiling — “ceiling” being Washingtonese for the point at which the money we’ve borrowed to pay the interest on prior loans for ever-expanding government spending no longer covers the tab because of the added interest on the new loans, necessitating more loans, resulting in more interest, triggering more — well, you get the idea. Now in control of the House and with near parity in the Senate, Republicans were in a position to stop the madness: to decline to authorize more borrowing and thus force spending cuts.
Instead, they did what they always do: They caved. They shriveled in the heat of Obamedia scaremongering about a purportedly imminent sovereign-debt default that would shred the full faith and credit of the United States. It was bogus. As McConnell and Boehner knew, the debt ceiling was scraped only because the total government spending they annually authorize now outstrips revenues by well over a trillion dollars. There was no credible threat of default because revenues remain vastly higher than what it costs to service the government’s bonds. The real threat — the threat too terrible to contemplate — was that our elected representatives might be forced to make hard, accountable decisions about what spending would need to be cut in order to live within their $14.3 trillion limit (i.e., a ceiling about three times as high as what Leviathan cost us in the mid-Nineties, when President Clinton pronounced the era of Big Government over).
So rather than confess that they had no stomach for the fight, McConnell and Boehner settled on two coats of camouflage. The first involved orchestrating the farce we’ve just witnessed: Republicans contrived a byzantine process that enabled them to raise the debt ceiling but dole the new trillions out in installments. As the installments came due, Republicans would pretend to vote against them . . . and hope you didn’t notice that we were talking about installments only because Congress had already voted in favor of the whole debt enchilada.
The second coat is just as disingenuous as the first. With an assist from compliant conservative pundits — who somehow always find a way to rationalize runaway Republican spending for a new entitlement here, a financial-sector bailout there, and a global sharia-democracy enterprise for good measure — GOP congressional leaders treated us to the dolorous refrain that they “control one-half of one-third of the government,” so what could you really expect them to do?
Does that pass your laugh test? Does the Supreme Court’s bloc of reliably progressive jurists ever come to the Left and say, “Gee, we’d love to help you out — maybe create constitutional rights to abortion, to protect murderers against the death penalty, to invent special rights for homosexuals, to curb free speech in election campaigns, to invite terrorist war prisoners to challenge their detention in civilian courts, all those things on your wish list. But as luck has it, we control only one-half of one-third of the government. It just wouldn’t be right to use our power that way”?
I don’t recall our commentariat’s complaining that President Bush controlled only one-third of the government when he decided — against deep congressional and public opposition — to order the surge. I seem to remember the argument being that without the surge, al-Qaeda would achieve a catastrophic triumph in Iraq, and that when the stakes for the nation are that high, elected leaders are obligated to use the power the Constitution gives them to advance the national interest — even if doing so is unpopular, brings down the wrath of the left-wing press, and risks an electoral rout.
The bunkum about controlling only a minority slice of the government is embarrassing. Divided government is not rule by a majority of government officials. Our Constitution’s separation of powers makes different components of government supreme in different areas. The judiciary gets to resolve legal controversies regardless of what the other two branches think. President Obama is convinced he needn’t even consult Congress, much less get authorization, before starting a war in Libya or sending troops to fight in Uganda. Either party in the Senate can reject a perfectly qualified judicial or cabinet nominee even though it is only one-half of one-third of the government.
The same Constitution that gives the judiciary, the commander-in-chief, and the Senate these powers directs that the House of Representatives — the body closest and most responsive to the public — is supreme when it comes to raising revenue. It prescribes, moreover, that money cannot be borrowed on the credit of the United States unless Congress authorizes it. President Obama can demagogue all he likes, but he can’t borrow a dime.
This has nothing to with holding a minority share of the pie; it has to do with holding the share that has primary power over the subject at hand. When it comes to the subjects of borrowing and spending the United States into oblivion, primary power belongs to the Republican-controlled House and to the Senate whose parliamentary procedures ensure that nothing can happen unless 40 Republicans give their assent.
Unbelievably, the United States now has a banana-republic-esque debt-to-GDP ratio of over 100 percent — we’ve borrowed more money than our gigantic economy produces annually. Obama has led us to the edge of the abyss, but Republicans had the wherewithal to stop him. The public’s desperation to stop him was its sole basis for electing them. Republicans know that, yet they couldn’t bring themselves to do the job — and they put a lot more energy into making believe than making the fight.
The debt is America’s existential crisis. For a dozen years, Republicans have been more its cause than its solution. In 2010, they were given a new lease on life based on their assurances that they had changed. But nothing has changed. So remind me what we need them for?
— 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.