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The Tea Party’s Position On The Debt Ceiling Is Fiscally And Politically Irresponsible

Debt Ceiling

The recently concluded debate on Capitol Hill over raising the Debt Ceiling, along with the criticism that Senator Ted Cruz has received over forcing many of his fellow Republicans to cast a vote that could potentially harm them in primary battles against Tea Party candidates, has led to yet another resumption of the usual political rhetoric on the issue that we’ve seen over the past several years. Principally, of course, I am referring to the argument that the GOP’s Tea Party wing has latched onto that essentially argues that there is something inherently wrong with voting to raise the debt ceiling. Indeed, as I noted during the debt ceiling showdown back in the summer of 2011, there is a sizable portion of this contingent of the GOP that contends that we don’t need to worry about raising the debt ceiling at all. Others take the somewhat less radical position that instances when the debt ceiling needs to be raised are appropriate times in which Congress, presumably a Republican Congress should use leverage to force concessions out of the opposition party and the President on spending issues, or even on issues that have nothing directly to do with spending at all. That’s why we’ve seen Republicans over the past several years who have used a showdown over the debt ceiling to attempt to force concessions on issues ranging from spending to the Keystone Pipeline to, most recently, the Affordable Care Act. In the end, of course, most of these efforts have ended in failure because the President and Democrats in the Senate have remained united in their position that there would be no negotiation over debt ceiling issues. It was in no small part in response to that unified Democratic front that the GOP ultimately decided not to force a fight this week on the issue.  Should Republicans manage to retake the Senate this year, though, one could imagine that they’d try to use the next debt ceiling showdown, which will likely occur in or about March 2015, one can easily foresee that they might return to the strategy of trying to seek concessions in return for raising the debt ceiling.

Politically, there may be certain advantages to taking this position. Indeed, notwithstanding the rhetoric we’ve heard from President Obama and other Democrats in recent years, the idea of using the occasion of debt ceiling increases and the expiration of Federal spending authority to extract policy or budgetary concessions from the opposition did not originate with Republicans during the Obama Administration. Examples of similar behavior can be found during the Reagan Administration when Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and used such occasions to attempt to extract concessions on issues such as providing funding to the Nicaraguan rebels and other matters that were points of serious contention between the parties back then. During the George W. Bush era, several Democrats attempted to use these occasions to get concessions on spending for the Iraq War. Additionally, much of the political rhetoric we’ve heard from Republicans regarding the irresponsibility of raising the debt ceiling without addressing spending mirrors similar rhetoric we heard from Democrats when Republicans were in power. Indeed, the current President had this to say about the matter when he was still a Senator from Illinois:

“Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I rise today to talk about America’s debt problem.

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. Over the past 5 years, our federal debt has increased by $3.5 trillion to $8.6 trillion. That is ”trillion” with a ”T.” That is money that we have borrowed from the Social Security trust fund, borrowed from China and Japan, borrowed from American taxpayers. And over the next 5 years, between now and 2011, the President’s budget will increase the debt by almost another $3.5 trillion.

Numbers that large are sometimes hard to understand. Some people may wonder why they matter. Here is why: This year, the Federal Government will spend $220 billion on interest. That is more money to pay interest on our national debt than we’ll spend on Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. That is more money to pay interest on our debt this year than we will spend on education, homeland security, transportation, and veterans benefits combined. It is more money in one year than we are likely to spend to rebuild the devastated gulf coast in a way that honors the best of America.

And the cost of our debt is one of the fastest growing expenses in the Federal budget. This rising debt is a hidden domestic enemy, robbing our cities and States of critical investments in infrastructure like bridges, ports, and levees; robbing our families and our children of critical investments in education and health care reform; robbing our seniors of the retirement and health security they have counted on.

(…)

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.

I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit”

With sufficient research, you can find similar quotes from Democrats such as current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other top Democrats who have spent the better part of the past several years railing against Republicans who used similar rhetoric and similarly opposed raising the debt ceiling. As I’ve noted before, the politics of the debt ceiling encourage this type of behavior:

Raising the debt ceiling is a crappy vote for any legislator to take. It demonstrates as plain as day the fiscal irresponsibility of the Federal Government, and the act of voting to push the debt limit even further into the fiscal stratosphere is one that looks bad on any representative’s resume.

Ideally, we ought to seriously consider eliminating the debt ceiling entirely, although it seems highly unlikely that any Congress is going to agree to give up what has become a sometimes effective bargaining chip in budget negotiations Another alternative would be to bring back what was called the Gephardt Rule, under which increases in the debt ceiling were tied to the passage of the annual Federal Budget Resolution. That rule wasn’t entirely perfect though in that it only applied in the House and didn’t necessarily mean the end of budget/debt ceiling showdowns and even government shutdowns during both the Carter and Reagan Administrations. Without such reforms, though, we will have to continue to rely on Congress to raise the debt ceiling when needed and to avoid turning it into a political crisis every time it has to be done. As I noted above, it isn’t an easy vote for most representatives, but the fact that it is a difficult vote that’s hard to explain to constituents isn’t an excuse for behaving irresponsibly.

As I have stated before, if the GOP was serious about cutting spending they would take care of it where it ought to be taken care of, during the Budget and Appropriations process. Refusing to raise the debt ceiling does nothing at all to control spending. All it does is make it potentially impossible for the Treasury Dept to pay for things that Congress has already ordered them to pay for. This could mean possibly not being able to pay interest on the National Debt, which would be catastrophic, or it could also mean not being able to pay any number of  government expenses ranging from salaries for Federal workers to payments owed to private companies that have provided services to the Federal Government. The economic impact of not making this second group of payments would be quite serious. That’s why refusing to raise the debt ceiling is a stupid, irresponsible, act.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Rafer Janders says:

    Why blame this on the Tea Party and not on the GOP itself? As the Times reported: “The vote — 221 to 201 — relied almost entirely on Democrats in the Republican-controlled House to carry the measure and represented the first debt ceiling increase since 2009 that was not attached to other legislation. Only 28 Republicans voted yes, and only two Democrats voted no.”

    28 Republicans out of 234 voted, so about 88% of members were opposed. That’s not a Tea Party problem — that’s a GOP problem. The headline should read “The Republican Party’s Position On The Debt Ceiling Is Fiscally and Politically Irresponsible”.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 34 Thumb down 0

  2. Davebo says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    You’d think a Libertarian wouldn’t have a problem pointing that out.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  3. @Rafer Janders:

    If this weeks votes had taken place after the primary season you would have seen a lot more GOPers voting yes. Most of those people are afraid of the Tea Party challengers, not part of the movement.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 16

  4. gVOR08 says:

    I keep seeing Cleavon Little holding a gun to his own head and threatening to shoot the ni**** . Unlike the townspeople of Rock Ridge, the Dems have figured out they can just say, “Proceed, Speaker.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  5. rudderpedals says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Most of those people are afraid of the Tea Party challengers, not part of the movement.

    Is it fair to say they’re cowardly?

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  6. jukeboxgrad says:

    Doug:

    Most of those people are afraid of the Tea Party challengers, not part of the movement.

    This instance demonstrates that they are controlled by the movement, which means they are effectively “part of the movement.”

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 32 Thumb down 0

  7. jukeboxgrad says:

    Doug:

    the current President had this to say about the matter when he was still a Senator from Illinois

    It’s disingenuous to mention this without explaining why it’s different.

    What both parties have done is object to debt-limit increases when they were the minority party. The 2006 vote you mentioned is an example of this. The D votes against that debt increase were merely symbolic, because Congress was under GOP control. There was nothing new about this. For example, on 4/1/93, all but 2 Rs in the house voted against a change in the debt ceiling. This vote was symbolic, because Congress was under D control.

    What the GOP has been doing lately is something the other party has never done (as far as I know): talking about using their majority control to block a debt increase. The 2006 vote you mentioned is an example of something both parties have done. What the GOP has been doing is something only the GOP has done (as far as I know). That’s why the example you’re raising isn’t comparable to what’s happening now.

    It’s also helpful to notice what Grassley (R) said, on the same matter, at roughly the same time (in 2006):

    … it should be obvious to everyone that the federal debt limit provides a misleading and inaccurate picture of the government’s future liabilities. Efforts to use the statutory debt limit to control government debt and deficits cannot succeed because it ignores the long-term budget problems. … Raising the debt limit is necessary to preserve the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. We cannot as a Congress pass spending bills and tax bills and then refuse to pay our bills. Refusing to raise the debt limit is like refusing to pay your credit card bill — after you’ve used your credit card. The time to control the deficits and debt is when we are voting on the spending bills and the tax bills that create it. Raising the debt limit is about meeting the obligations we have already incurred. We must meet our obligations.

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  8. Rafer Janders says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    So your argument is that they vote irresponsibly because they’re afraid to lose their sinecures, not out of ideology.

    I dunno, whether you do something irresponsible out of conviction or out of cowardice, it still seems like irresponsibility to me.

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  9. Rafer Janders says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Most of those people are afraid of the Tea Party challengers, not part of the movement.

    But as you say, whether part of the movement or not, they’ll do whatever the Tea Party demands of them, so…the end result is the same.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  10. anjin-san says:

    If this weeks votes had taken place after the primary season you would have seen a lot more GOPers voting yes.

    In other words, they put their jobs before the good of the country.

    Well, I can see why you could never vote for a Democrat.

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  11. James Pearce says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Most of those people are afraid of the Tea Party challengers, not part of the movement.

    I’ll grant that they’re spineless cowards, but how much of this fear is justified?

    Tea Party challengers have been very good at electing Democrats. Maybe the incumbents should fight back, not play along.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  12. ernieyeball says:

    Additionally, much of the political rhetoric we’ve heard from Republicans regarding the irresponsibility of raising the debt ceiling without addressing spending mirrors similar rhetoric we heard from Democrats when Republicans were in power. Indeed, the current President had this to say about the matter when he was still a Senator from Illinois:..

    So a sitting President who is a former Member of Congress changes his mind. Damn, that never happened before…oh, wait…

    President FORD: When I was a member of the House for 25 and a half years, I used to look at the president and the vice president – those dictators at the other end, how can they be so arbitrary and difficult? Then when you shift from the legislating to the executive branch of the government, and you look at the Congress and say, why are all of those House and Senate members so irresponsible?

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6684841

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  13. stonetools says:

    All this hand wringing about the Tea Party doesn’t mean anything unless we vote out these morons this year. Unfortunately, every analyst seems to say that this won’t happen. I repeat, the 2010 elections was the greatest self inflicted wound by US voters in many a decade.
    AS for the debt ceiling vote, we should just get rid of the damned thing. Maybe that we will, since the Administration’s new stance on the issue makes it clear that it can’t be used for any kind of bargaining in future. The Administration’s attempt to use it as the occasion to negotiate a “grand bargain” was an unmitigated disaster, and now my guess is that neither this Administration or any other will make that mistake again.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  14. al-Ameda says:

    Very nice move there. It is one thing when a member of Congress (such as then Senator Barack Obama) gives a pro-forma throwaway speech decrying the national debt, however it is quite another matter when a majority of the members of one of our two major political parties – the Republican Party – decides to leverage their political and budget demands against a vote to authorize an increase in the Debt Ceiling Limit, thereby causing instability in national and worldwide financial markets.

    And, one party – the Republican Party – did this not once, but twice, in 2011 and 2013. And that one party – the Republican Party – scoffed at the notion that their actions to entertain default would have any negative effect on financial markets.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  15. Rafer Janders says:

    Let’s assume that there was an intransigent bloc within the Democratic Party that advocated far-left, quasi-Marxist policies (I know, I know, never going to happen) — 100% confiscatory tax on incomes over $500K, nationalization of the means of production, etc. Let’s call this the Herbal Tea Party.

    Now let’s assume that the Herbal Tea Party had a virtual lock on the Democrats and that Democrat Congressmen lived in fear of being challenged from the left.

    And finally, let’s assume that, due to fear of the Herbal Tea Party, 90% of Democratic Representatives voted to repudiate the US government’s debts and destroy the world economy.

    In that case, I guar ant-goddam-tee you that Doug, and every other major pundit and news source in this country, wouldn’t be writing headlines saying “the Herbal Tea Party’s Position on the Debt Ceiling Is Fiscally and Politically Irresponsible.” It would be “The Democratic Party’s Position on the Debt Ceiling is Fiscally and Politically Irresponsible.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  16. C. Clavin says:

    The entire Republican economic agenda is irresponsible and counterproductive.
    So why would this be any different???

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    As I have stated before, if the GOP was serious about cutting spending they would take care of it where it ought to be taken care of, during the Budget and Appropriations process.

    Why am I reminded of the “Don’t make me shoot this ni**er!” scene from Blazing Saddles?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Let’s call this the Herbal Tea Party.

    HA! Thanx, I needed that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  19. gVOR08 says:

    @Doug Mataconis: The Republican Party represents the interests of the .01%. As such, nearly nobody can vote for them out of self interest. So they have to con 50% +1 into voting for them. As part of the con, they created the Tea Party. You don’t really think a dozen “true patriots’ sat down around a kitchen table and bought a graphic wrapped bus, did you?

    Most of those people are afraid of the Tea Party challengers, not part of the movement.

    They created the Tea Party. They profited from the Tea Party’s votes, money, and labor. Now they’ve partially lost control of it. Dr. Frankenstein may not be a monster, he may be afraid of the monster, but nonetheless he created the monster and he is responsible for it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  20. jukeboxgrad says:

    As part of the con, they created the Tea Party.

    Correct, and here are some facts about that from impeccable sources: WSJ and NR. AFP is a major force in tea-party politics (link):

    Conservative groups, most notably Americans for Prosperity, are spending millions of dollars to ensure that as many supporters as possible cast a ballot. … Americans for Prosperity, founded by the industrialist Koch brothers, says it now has more than 100 paid field workers nationwide and about 5,000 volunteers to go door to door. The group plans to spend $130 million this year on all activities, up from $14 million four years ago. That makes it one of the biggest conservative interest groups involved in the election

    And in case anyone isn’t clear about the relationship between AFP and the tea party (link):

    Americans for Prosperity [is] a leading tea-party group

    Also see here (link):

    Two of the conservative movement’s largest grassroots organizations, Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, have been key players in the Tea Party and town-hall rallies over the spring and summer.

    Notice that in NR-speak, there’s no problem describing an organization founded by the Koch Brothers as “grassroots.” Because I’m sure David and Charles own some grass and it has roots, right?

    Dr. Frankenstein

    The analogy is perfect.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  21. jukeboxgrad says:

    I just saw this. I think it’s so true and so funny (link):

    Ted Cruz apparently thinks that somebody has got to rise out of the smoking ruins that is the Republican Party … and apparently he feels that somebody can be him. He first has to create the smoking ruins, of course, and he’s doing a pretty good job of that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1