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Welcome to Jonestown on the Potomac

July 26, 2011

The cult members have gathered. They've drunk the Kool-Aid. The poison already flowing through their veins, they are hallucinating and lashing out against the unbelievers. But this time, the death spasms aren't their own, but their nation's. Unless they get what want, Congressional Republicans will block an increase in the U.S. debt ceiling and take their country down with them.
Welcome to Jonestown on the Potomac.
As Speaker John Boehner once again made clear in his national address Monday night, the lunatics are merely running the asylum; they're running the House of Representatives. "In Washington more spending and more debt is business as usual," Boehner crowed, "I've got news for Washington - those days are over."
If so, those days only ended for John Boehner and his GOP colleagues when a Democrat began serving as President.
On Tuesday, Bloomberg joined the New York Times and the Washington Post in documenting that when it comes to the national debt, Republicans broke it:

Yet the speaker, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell all voted for major drivers of the nation's debt during the past decade: Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts and Medicare prescription drug benefits. They also voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, that rescued financial institutions and the auto industry.
Together, a Bloomberg News analysis shows, these initiatives added $3.4 trillion to the nation's accumulated debt and to its current annual budget deficit of $1.5 trillion.

As the Washington Post summed up the causes of the nation's mounting debt, "The biggest culprit, by far, has been an erosion of tax revenue triggered largely by two recessions and multiple rounds of tax cuts." An analysis by the Times echoed that finding:

With President Obama and Republican leaders calling for cutting the budget by trillions over the next 10 years, it is worth asking how we got here -- from healthy surpluses at the end of the Clinton era, and the promise of future surpluses, to nine straight years of deficits, including the $1.3 trillion shortfall in 2010. The answer is largely the Bush-era tax cuts, war spending in Iraq and Afghanistan, and recessions.

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch was telling the truth when he described Republican fiscal management during the Bush years by acknowledging, "It was standard practice not to pay for things." As Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, an Arlington, Virginia-based group that advocates for balanced budgets, concluded:

"If there had been no Barack Obama, we would still be bumping up against the debt limit."

Nevertheless, House Minority Leader Eric Cantor complained two weeks ago:

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

Not, the record shows, if a Republican is in the White House.

When George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office, Republican majorities in Congress voted seven times to raise the debt ceiling. As Bloomberg and ThinkProgress explained, the current GOP leadership team including Cantor, Boehner, Mitch McConnell and Jon Kyl voted a combined 19 times to jack up the debt limit by $4 trillion. History did not begin on January 20, 2009: when Barack Obama took the oath of office, he was greeted by an annual budget deficit of $1.2 trillion and an accumulated debt debt topping $11 trillion.
As it turns out, Republicans' selective amnesia regarding their deficit-spending past is now complicated by delusions about future debt they just voted for.
Leave aside for the moment that Ronald Reagan tripled the national debt and increased the debt ceiling 17 times. Forget also George W. Bush nearly doubled the debt or that the Bush tax cuts were the biggest driver of debt over the past decade, and if made permanent, would be continue to be so over the next. Pay no attention to the federal tax burden now at its lowest level in 60 years or income inequality at its highest level in 80 years after a decade of plummeting rates for America's supposed job creators who don't create jobs. Look away from the two unfunded wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the budget-busting Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 and the Medicare prescription drug program because, after all, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell voted for all of it.

But even if Republicans ignore all of those inconvenient truths, there's no getting around the fact that they just voted to add trillions more to the debt.
Of course, you'd never know it listening to them. Speaker Boehner last week acknowledged that at least 60 GOP Congressmen "won't vote to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances." As Huffington Post reported, "38 have signed a pledge to oppose any debt ceiling increase unless it is accompanied by a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, which is politically unachievable." In April, 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 and would constitute "the last time we're doing it." Echoing the right-wing blogosphere, Tea Party darling Marco Rubio (R-FL) declared, "I will vote to defeat an increase in the debt limit unless it is the last one we ever authorize."
Guess again.
Rubio joined John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell, Jon Kyl among the 234 House Republicans and 40 GOP Senators in voting for the Ryan plan. But Ryan's blueprint didn't merely privatize Medicare, slash Medicaid and deliver yet another tax cut windfall for the wealthy; it would also add another $6 trillion in debt over the next decade. As a result, the GOP's own Ryan budget not only violates the "Cut, Cap and Balance Act" spending targets they just vote for this week. The Ryan budget, like "CCB", would also require the Republicans to raise the ceiling repeatedly in the future.

In a rare moment of candor, Speaker John Boehner admitted as much. As Reuters detailed, Speaker Boehner told a gathering of Buckeye state Tea Partiers in April that the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling must be raised now - and not for the last time:

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.

And yet the same GOP "default deniers" and "debt kamikazes" that will have to vote to increase the debt ceiling multiple times in the future won't do it now.
And they don't need to listen to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Wall Street rating agencies in the ever-louder chorus of voices warning Republicans that failure to raise the U.S. debt ceiling would result in "calamity." As their own House Speaker John Boehner explained to his caucus two weeks ago, "Missing August 2nd could spook the market. And you could have a real catastrophe. Nobody wants that to happen." As for what that "real catastrophe" might look like, Boehner in January painted a nightmare scenario:

"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."

Nevertheless, House Republicans, pressured by Tea Party zealots, have been digging in their heels. Two weeks ago, Congressmen Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and Steve King (R-IA) joined Michele Bachmann in calling the Obama administration's warnings about the August 2 deadline lies. (Not to be outdone, Sarah Palin, who previously blasted "Timothy Geithner's false statements to the American people," tweeted "Obama lies, economy dies.") Georgia Rep. Paul Broun called for the debt ceiling to be lowered to $13 trillion, would necessitate immediately cutting roughly three-fourths of all federal spending. And while Arkansas Rep. Eric "Rick" Crawford announced that a default "wouldn't work for just a few days, that would work for a few years," his freshman colleague Mo Brooks (R-AL) insisted no debt ceiling increase, no problem. As the Washington Post reported:

"There should be no default on August 2," Brooks said. "In fact, our credit rating should be improved by not raising the debt ceiling."
That stands in contrast to a warning from Moody's. The rating agency said Wednesday that it might downgrade the U.S. government's top-notch credit rating, "given the rising possibility that the statutory debt limit will not be raised on a timely basis, leading to a default."

It's now wonder conservative columnist David Brooks fretted that the GOP is no longer "a normal party." Or as former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill put it:

"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."

Brooks and O'Neill are right. But these loonies don't pose a danger to themselves, but to 300 million Americans. These Kool-Aid drinkers are now running the House of Representatives in Jonestown on the Potomac.


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

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