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Memo to Media: GOP Debt Ceiling Hostage Taking Responsible for Sequester

February 20, 2013

As the federal government nears the March 1st deadline to avoid the $1.2 trillion, ten year budget sequester, the media are breathlessly playing the blame game. While House Speaker John Boehner continued to decry "the Obama sequester" in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "the President is raging against a budget crisis he created," John Avlon of the Daily Beast unearthed a July 2011 Boehner Powerpoint slide about the sequester which shows why the Speaker days later crowed, "I got 98 percent of what I wanted."
But lost in the media's focus on the paternity of the sequester, draconian spending cuts which could cost 750,000 jobs and slash almost a point from economic growth in 2013, is one inescapable fact. There would be no sequester at all without the unprecedented Republican threat to block the once routine debt ceiling increase and so trigger an economic catastrophe. To put it simply: no GOP debt ceiling hostage-taking, no sequester.
But you don't have to take my word for it: from the moment they assumed the House majority in 2011 Republicans leaders admitted as much. The United States has never defaulted on its obligations and had never put its full faith and credit in jeopardy (especially by choice). Nevertheless, GOP leaders promised to do just that unless their demands for draconian spending cuts were met. While Paul Ryan warned "You can't not raise the debt ceiling," the new Speaker John Boehner agreed such a failure would produce "a financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy." In January 2011, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham nevertheless promised his party would do the unprecedented--and previously unthinkable:

"Let me tell you what's involved if we don't lift the debt ceiling: financial collapse and calamity throughout the world. That's not lost upon me. But we've done this 93 times. And if we keep doing the same old thing, then that is insanity to the nth degree."

Key to understanding the current fiscal brinksmanship in Washington is the Republican pretense that history began on January 20, 2009. As the new GOP House Majority's default threat escalated in the spring and summer of 2011, Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling claimed that for Republicans raising the debt ceiling is "contrary to our DNA," Majority Leader Cantor pleaded for understanding:

"I don't think the White House understands is how difficult it is for fiscal conservatives to say they're going to vote for a debt ceiling increase."

That, of course, is complete nonsense. The debt ceiling was routinely raised 40 times since 1980, including 17 times under Ronald Reagan (who tripled the national debt) and another seven under President George W. Bush (who nearly doubled it again). As it turns out, the current GOP leadership team including Eric Cantor voted a combined 19 times to bump the debt limit $4 trillion during Bush's tenure. (That vote tally included a "clean" debt ceiling increase in 2004, backed by 98 current House Republicans and 31 sitting GOP Senators.)

Of course, they had to. After all, the two unfunded wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the budget-busting Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 (the first war-time tax cut in modern U.S. history) and the Medicare prescription drug program drained the U.S. Treasury and doubled the national debt by 2009. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded two years ago, the Bush tax cuts accounted for half of the deficits during his tenure, and if made fully permanent, over the next decade would have cost the U.S. Treasury more than Iraq, Afghanistan, the recession, TARP and the stimulus--combined. And Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Eric Cantor voted for all of it.

When President Obama paid their ransom in the form of the August 2011 Budget Control Act overwhelming supported by Congressional Republicans, the GOP brass was thrilled with their successful extortion. Speaker Boehner, who has acknowledged that debt limit will have to be raised repeatedly in the years to come, declared "I got 98 percent of what I wanted. I'm pretty happy." For his part, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gloated over the BCA and pledged the GOP would be back again and again to take the U.S. economy hostage. As he explained on August 2, 2011:

"I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting," he said. "Most of us didn't think that. What we did learn is this -- it's a hostage that's worth ransoming. And it focuses the Congress on something that must be done."

McConnell, the Washington Post revealed, "said he could imagine doing this again." And as he explained to CNBC's Larry Kudlow, McConnell's future hostage-taking isn't a threat, but a promise:

"What we have done, Larry, also is set a new template. In the future, any president, this one or another one, when they request us to raise the debt ceiling, it will not be clean anymore. This is just the first step. This, we anticipate, will take us into 2013. Whoever the new president is, is probably going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again. Then we will go through the process again and see what we can continue to achieve in connection with these debt ceiling requests of presidents to get our financial house in order."

But as we fast forward to the looming March 1 deadline, the media conventional wisdom machine, as evidenced by its well-worn cog Chris Cillizza, only asks "who is responsible for the sequester" and predictably concludes:

"Well, according to our Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward, the idea did in fact originate in the White House."

But the sequester, like the "Grand Bargain" and Congressional debt "super committee" before it, came about only because the Republican Party engaged in what can only be termed economic terrorism. As former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill fretted two years ago:

"The people who are threatening not to pass the debt ceiling are our version of al Qaeda terrorists. Really. They're really putting our whole society at risk by threatening to round up 50 percent of the members of the Congress, who are loony, who would put our credit at risk."

Never before has the threat to block a debt limit increase been coupled with one party's intent and ability to actually do it. The BCA's sequester process is the price America paid to the Republican extortionists.
So, to all of the so-called pundits and ersatz journalists out there, repeat after me. No Republican debt ceiling hostage taking, no sequester.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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