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COLUMN: Debt ceiling Kabuki doesn't help Americans

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 | 6:29 p.m. CDT

The Kabuki tradition in Congress over raising the federal government's debt ceiling is in full flower. It's a more reliable Washington ritual than the Cherry Blossom Festival.

Here's how it goes. The president, whoever he is, says: "It's time to raise the debt limit because … well, we need the money."

The party out of power responds with: "Oh, no you don't. Borrowing more money is irresponsible. The national debt is too big already. We're going to vote against it."

They go on like that for a while and finally the debt ceiling gets raised, with the vote (with rare exceptions) going pretty much along party lines.

I used to think Republicans were guiltier of this kind of hypocrisy than Democrats. A Wall Street Journal article by Gerald Seib convinced me I was wrong.

Seib chronicled how from 2003 until 2006, when Bush the Younger was president, the debt ceiling was raised with virtually no Democratic votes. The junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, voted against raising it, calling the need a "leadership failure." Now that he's the one leading, he calls that vote a mistake.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, now a staunch opponent of raising the ceiling without getting draconian budget cuts in return, voted to raise the ceiling six times while Bush was in office.

So, apparently, hypocrisy exists on both sides of the aisle in Washington. Who knew?

When all is said and done, the debt ceiling will be raised, despite the fact that in a recent poll 63 percent of Americans said they were against raising it.

It will be raised because there is no rational alternative. Trying to hold down the deficit by not raising the debt ceiling is like trying to balance your family budget by deciding not to pay the rent or your mortgage. Life just doesn't work like that.

The real question is whether Republicans, looking over their shoulders in terror at their wild-eyed tea party constituents, can successfully win this game of chicken they're playing and extort concessions from the Democrats.

The answer should be no.

All the Democrats have to do is hold their ground and the Republicans will be forced to fold their cards, which amount to a busted flush.

As this battle reaches crisis proportions, if it does, the pressure on the Republicans to make a deal will become irresistible. The pressure will come not from the crazies in the tea party movement but from the moneyed classes that bankroll them. Those people understand the level of disaster a Treasury default — which is what we're talking about here — would trigger.

They won't let their little helpers in Congress bring the temple down around their ears — and a $1,000 bill is far more effective than a tea bag when you're trying to get the attention of a politician.

Were I a Democratic operative, I would push the issue even further. "You want to cut the deficit?" I'd say, "OK, how about we revisit the Bush tax cuts and get rid of them for people who earn $200,000 to $250,000 a year? That would cut the deficit."

The Republicans would then be faced with defending tax cuts for the rich at the expense of a Treasury default.

I'm not sure President Obama is up for that kind of fight. That's not his style. He's more of the compromising kind.

Sooner or later he's going to have to learn that you can't compromise with tea party Republicans. They think that Orrin Hatch is a liberal. Even Haley Barbour isn't conservative enough for them.

They are, in short, nuts.

I'm encouraged by the way Obama and the Democrats have gone after the Republicans on the issue of tax cuts for the rich. It's a popular issue and Democrats are on the right side of it, just as cutting Medicare is an unpopular issue that the Republicans are on the wrong side of.

It gives one hope for the future. Not much, but some.

This column was distributed through OtherWords.org, a project for the Institute of Policy Studies.


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Comments

Jimmy Bearfield May 18, 2011 | 6:52 p.m.

Ah, yes, the ever-irrelevant Donald Kaul.

"Trying to hold down the deficit by not raising the debt ceiling is like trying to balance your family budget by deciding not to pay the rent or your mortgage. Life just doesn't work like that."

Sure, it does. It's called strategic default. A Harris survey found that nearly half of mortgage-holders would consider it: www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40704053/ns/busines...

"OK, how about we revisit the Bush tax cuts and get rid of them for people who earn $200,000 to $250,000 a year? That would cut the deficit."

But not as much as if the tax cuts were eliminated for all brackets. Congress hasn't pegged the AMT to inflation because it knows the middle class is where the most money is. Yet Kaul and his ilk still are selling the fantasy that simply raising taxes on "the rich" will be enough to make a serious dent in the deficit and debt. Kaul would do well to learn at the knee of a more realistic — and more widely syndicated — columnist: Walter Williams.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire May 18, 2011 | 7:44 p.m.

Your statement indicates that you do your learning from opinion columnists.

That places you only one rung above people who gather their information from hate radio.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield May 18, 2011 | 9:12 p.m.

And where do you do your learning, Paul? Clearly YouTube is one place, based on how often you provide links there when trying to make a point. Is that where you learned to write "Send them to Iraq!!!" when you can't think of anything else to say? Or was it at Ellis Library?

(Report Comment)
frank christian May 18, 2011 | 9:20 p.m.

Jimmy - Answering Paul is like peeing in the wind, all you can expect to get is "blow back" which might get your shoes wet- nothing else.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire May 19, 2011 | 6:53 p.m.

You know what opinions are like.

They're just like the people who write them.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire May 19, 2011 | 7:01 p.m.

And if you can't see the stupidity of your exercise of first finding an opinion that you already agree with before reading through it in order to "learn" something, then I'm sorry for you. At least until you write your next opinion. You know what opinions are like. Right?

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire May 19, 2011 | 7:02 p.m.

"Jimmy - Answering Paul is like peeing in the wind, all you can expect to get is "blow back" which might get your shoes wet- nothing else."

How many attempts did it take you to learn that, Frank? How long will you remember?

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire May 19, 2011 | 7:22 p.m.

And since I am an honest debater I must give credit where it is due. Frank gave us all an EXCELLENT description of what his opinion is like.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire May 20, 2011 | 2:51 p.m.

In fact, from now on whenever Frank issues a statement I will term it as trickle down education.

(Report Comment)

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