Mollie and I have been out of the country for a week. Talk about timing! The cause du jour of course is the debt ceiling crisis being played out, emotionally, both on Capital Hill and throughout the world. It really is an unprecedented faltering of the tripartite representative democracy crafted by the founders. With unprecedented zeal, bordering on and in some cases identical to religious fervor, the Tea Party has been successful in bringing the country to the precipice of financial calamity.
But, is it justified? One might even ask, is it understood by those who precipitated it?On this evening’s national news I saw and heard one passionate Tea Party member of the House (from New York, as it were) justify his support to his cause by saying, “This President is addicted to spending!” Clearly he, an apparent victim of sound-bite reasoning, believed that capping spending through the mechanism of the debt ceiling is the appropriate means to remedy the problem. But, is it? Please consider an editorial in the nation’s largest and, arguably, most successful newspaper entitled, “Misinformation Mars Debt-ceiling Battle”. It lists “five leading myths about the debt ceiling to keep in mind”, and here is the first:
The debt limit is a blank check. Perhaps the most destructive misinformation about raising the limit is that it would give the president a “blank check” for more wasteful spending.
Raising the debt limit —something that has been done 49 times under Republican presidents and 29 times under Democratic presidents since 1960 — just lets the government pay for spending that Congress has already approved: interest on the national debt, Social Security benefits, paychecks for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, tax refunds, highway construction and so on. Think of it this way: Refusing to raise the debt limit is like going to Best Buy, bringing home a 50-inch flat panel TV — and then arguing that you shouldn’t pay the credit card bill.
Not raising the debt limit puts President Obama in the bizarre situation of either not spending money that Congress already told him to spend, or attempting to spend money and exceeding the ceiling. Either way, he fails to execute the law.The time to get tough about deficits is when the tax and spending decisions are made in the first place, not when the bills are coming due.
Now I don’t know how this could be phrased any clearer, and yet the person in the street in America is clearly confused and angry at what is going on in Washington, and in many cases, mad at the President. Yes, many of them heard and believed what the Tea Party told them about America’s financial problems, and central to that message was that the Democrats (alone) had spent the nation into the poor house and were still doing so. And, the message goes, the solution is very simple: we must spend no more than revenues allow.
Well, that does seem simple! After all, it works for a household budget, why shouldn’t it work for a government budget? This reasoning was emphasized in an editorial by my colleague, Anson Burlingame in today’s Joplin Globe. Anson used the term “simple” repeatedly and touted a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution as ” . . . the obvious fix.” Anson urges us to ” . . . forget war as a topic of concern. Forget abortion, immigration and all the other side issues.” He continued, “And don’t let them try to scare you with Medicare, Social Security and other entitlement concerns, or defense spending as well. Focus on the amount of federal spending any candidate will authorize in the next three years.”
What would a balanced budget amendment do to fix the problem, given that emergencies happen and that revenues are unpredictable? Will Congress say, “Sorry, Arizona. We know your whole state is burning up, but we can’t afford to help? Or will Congress eliminate breakfast for the mentally retarded in order to afford it? Sorry, the balanced budget amendment is like asking an addict to sign a pledge that he won’t fall off the wagon.
Anson’s message is that fixing entitlements is simply scare tactics, but how can that be when about two-thirds of all expenditures are entitlements and a huge chunk of what’s left is the Defense Department? Everyone agrees that spending must be cut, they simply (that word again) don’t want their spending cut. Entitlements are the heart of the problem, not something to be ignored. Number one is Medicare, a program terribly inefficient and rife with abuse. Social Security is eminently fixable, if we would only do it now.
Appointing twelve Congress persons to a super committee to make the hard choices would be laughable if it weren’t damned to failure. No, simply capping spending without making the hard entitlement-capping decisions is simply kicking the can down the road. It will land in the simple gutter in 2012 and we will then try to solve it with a simple choice. But it won’t work. What we should do is make the hard entitlement choices and make them early. We need to clean our plate. We need to eat our peas. It would be good for us.