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Republicans Play Debt Ceiling Joke on Themselves

May 31, 2011

On Tuesday, grandstanding House Republicans will hold a vote on a so-called "clean bill" to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. Despite his party having voted seven times to double the debt limit while President Bush sat in the Oval Office, Majority Leader Eric Cantor has promised the $16.7 trillion cap will be "dead on arrival" without draconian spending cuts. While business leaders have expressed growing concern over the GOP's debt ceiling hostage taking, Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce brushed off today's charade, "Wall Street is in on the joke."
As it turns out, the joke may be on the Republicans themselves. After all, the 235 House Republicans and 40 GOP Senators who supported Paul Ryan's 2012 budget bill voted to add $6 trillion to the U.S. national debt over the next decade. And that means, as Speaker John Boehner acknowledged, Republicans now and in the future would have to increase the debt ceiling - repeatedly.
Of course, you'd never know that based on the incendiary rhetoric from the leading lights of the Republican Party and their right-wing echo chamber. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) said his vote to bump up the debt ceiling would come at the cost of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, "the last time we're doing it." His South Carolina colleague Jim Demint threatened to filibuster the increase, even if it meant the GOP's "Waterloo." The number two House Republican Eric Cantor (R-VA) regurgitated that line, telling Democrats the GOP "will not grant their request for a debt limit increase" without major spending cuts or budget process reforms." For his part, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan insisted, "We won't raise, just simply raise, the debt limit," adding, "We will vote to have spending cuts and controls in conjunction with the debt limit increase."
Sadly, as Ezra Klein of the Washington Post explained last month, "Republicans can't meet their own deficit and spending targets." The Ryan plan to privatize Medicare, slash and convert Medicaid into block grants, and deliver another tax-cut windfall for the wealthy nevertheless "blows through both their spending and debt caps":

House Republicans voted to make the Ryan budget law. But the Ryan budget includes $6 trillion in new debt over the next 10 years, which means that to become law, the Ryan budget would require a substantial increase in the debt ceiling. But before the Republicans agree to increase the debt ceiling so that the budget they passed can become law, Republicans are demanding the passage of either a balanced budget amendment that would make the Ryan budget unconstitutional or a spending cap that the Ryan budget would, in certain years (and if you're using more realistic numbers, in all years), exceed.

It's no wonder Klein's Washington Post colleague Matt Miller deemed the Republican budgetary horror story "The Shining - National Debt Edition."
Back in April, John Boehner warned President Obama that there's "not a chance you're going to get a clean bill," adding, ""There will not be an increase in the debt limit without something really, really big attached to it." And in his address last week to the Economic Club of New York earlier this month, Speaker Boehner made clear what those "big things" would be. Despite having just voted for the Paul Ryan budget which would add $6 trillion in federal debt over the next decade, John Boehner demanded spending cuts at least as large as the increase in the debt ceiling. As Boehner later trumpeted:

"Medicare, Medicaid - everything should be on the table, except raising taxes."

It's no wonder the Washington Post's Matt Miller deemed Boehner's "awe-inspiring hypocrisy on the debt limit" one of those moments of "political behavior that can only be dubbed Super-Duper Hypocrisy So Brazen They Must Really Think We're Idiots." After all, despite their current posturing, John Boehner and GOP Congressional majorities voted seven times to raise the debt ceiling under George W. Bush. During his tenure, the U.S. national debt doubled, fueled by the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the Medicare prescription drug plan and the unfunded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. John Boehner voted for all of it. But now that a Democrat is in the White House, he proclaims that this debt ceiling vote is "the opportunity for America to get its fiscal house in order."
But as Boehner admitted in a rare moment of candor in April, Congress must raise the debt ceiling and do so repeatedly in the years to come.

The private April 25 meeting was convened by the Speaker of the House of Representatives at the request of Tea Party leaders, who were seething over recent Republican compromises, most notably on the 2011 budget.
One of the 25 or so leaders, all from Boehner's district, asked him if Republicans would raise America's $14.3 trillion debt limit.
According to half a dozen attendees interviewed by Reuters, the most powerful Republican in Washington said "yes."
"And we're going to have to raise it again in the future," he added. With the mass retirement of America's Baby Boomers, he explained, it would take 20 years to balance the U.S. budget and 30 years after that to erase the nation's huge fiscal deficit.

In one of his few "adult conversations" with the American people, incoming Speaker Boehner warned in January what would happen if his party failed to do so:

"That would be a financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy. Remember, the American people on election day said, 'we want to cut spending and we want to create jobs.' And you can't create jobs if you default on the federal debt."

All of which makes Tuesday's vote, as Democrats have complained, a political stunt. Sadly, it appears to be working with voters, if not economists and the business community. In recent weeks, polls by CBS and Gallup showed that Americans by a 2-to-1 margin oppose raising the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. (Among Republicans, the gap is a staggering 70% to 8%.) Nevertheless, the U.S. debt limit will be raised this summer in order to avoid the economic calamity default would bring. As for Republicans, the agenda they just voted for requires it as well.
And that's no joke.


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

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