Friday, July 22, 2011

Three Things About the Debt Ceiling You Probably Haven't Read

1. Bring back shame
Am I really hopelessly old-fashioned? I find the conversation about the debt ceiling very odd. There has been a lot of discussion about whether failing to raise it would really be catastrophic. (Almost certainly it would, but if you live in a fact-free zone like Michele Bachmann you can just ignore that.) But is no one interested in discussing the moral issue?

Suppose someone told  you, "I've been spending too much money, and I can't afford it, so I've decided to stop paying my bills. That includes the kid who just mowed my lawn. Oh, and it also includes that money I borrowed from you last week." What would your opinion be of someone like that? Not very high, I imagine.

That's what we'd be saying if we announce we're not raising the debt ceiling: not that we're going to reduce spending, just that we're going to stop paying our bills. The Tea Party was incensed about proposals to help people who were delinquent on their mortgages. Now Bachmann is suggesting that we become a nation of deadbeats.

This is a matter of, to use an old-fashioned term, our national honor. It is unfortunate for modern Democrats that they have never been comfortable using the language of morality and national honor, because it strikes me as a rhetorical approach that would leave the Republicans flummoxed.

And not only with regard to the debt ceiling. What about the national dishonor of the biggest economy in the world being a place where hundreds of thousands of people go bankrupt because of medical bills, that ranks worse than thirtieth among nations of the world in both life expectancy and infant survival, and 27th in students' proficiency in math? Politicians may be shameless, but are the rest of us?

2. Is this how Frankenstein felt?
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has sent a letter to Congress urging it to raise the debt ceiling "as expeditiously as possible." No mention in the letter of the fact that the Chamber is probably more responsible than any other single actor for the crisis. The Chamber spent unknown millions of dollars getting Republicans elected to Congress in 2010. Now it's trying to rein them in.

Not that it's showing much evidence of a sudden conversion. "The Chamber believes it is imperative that any path to deficit reduction focus on...cutting spending, especially mandatory spending, rather than shortsighted tax increases." Still, saying "focus on" rather than "only consist of" is moderation of a sort. Unfortunately, I don't see any sign that the new members of Congress understand who put them there.

3. Abandonment issues
Democrats in Congress have been loudly and vociferously opposed to making major cuts in Medicare and other entitlement programs. According to the newspapers, that's because doing so will deprive them of a good electoral issue: the House Republicans' quixotic attempt to turn Medicare into a voucher program that doesn't keep up with health-care cost inflation.

I believe this story as far as it goes, but I think it misses the real point. Which Republicans will be hurt by this issue, if it is an issue? Not so much new candidates running against Democratic incumbents in 2012. They didn't vote for the plan. But the Republicans currently in the House did.

In other words, House Democrats want to be in the majority again. And they perceive Obama as being willing to give up on the idea of a Democratic majority in order to position himself as a centrist for the Presidential election.

They may be right, and if so, it strikes me as foolish. Being President is a lot less fun when you have a highly unified, uncompromising opposition party in control of the House. See, for example, above.

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