One hears junkie talk in the words of Washington. Whether jonesing for a fix of chemicals or tax dollars, addicts rarely make sense.
President Trump describes the debt ceiling as “really not necessary.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who does not share the president’s view, nevertheless calls taking a December vote on the debt ceiling unneeded because “extraordinary measures” allow Congress to call an end-around trick play on the debt limit. Senate Finance chairman Orrin Hatch, a budget hawk who won election to the upper house more than 40 years ago on the catchphrase, “What do you call a Senator who’s served in office for 18 years? You call him home,” says of the debt ceiling, “I want to get rid of it.”
And that’s just what leading Republicans say about the periodic debt-limit votes. Articles in the New Republic, Salon, Slate, the Atlantic, and New York magazine all call for its elimination. So, too, do liberal leaders Chuck Schumer, Robert Reich, Brian Schatz, Keith Ellison, Jerrold Nadler, and Jan Schakowsky.
Most Republican officeholders disagree. But several powerful ones want to evade the debt ceiling or eliminate it entirely. This comes as one of many about-faces for a party increasingly prone to half pirouettes. Unlike, say, restraint in foreign wars or the push to enforce immigration laws, the party’s base does not approve of this latest pivot.
Republicans made a balanced-budget amendment the first plank in their ten-point Contract with America. Twenty-three-years later, the GOP’s most powerful deprioritize the debt, deficits, and spending.
Words made this obvious in recent days. Numbers made it apparent, too.
The national debt eclipsed the $20 trillion mark last week. For all but four years during the new century, Republicans have controlled the House, where spending bills originate. The Republicans now control both houses of Congress and the presidency. Blaming Democrats for future increases in the debt, which skyrocketed more than $300 billion in a single day last week, strikes as something only stalwarts swear by.
The 100-year-old debt-ceiling law did little to limit spending. But Democrats wish to rid themselves of it for a reason. Its existence provides conservatives willing to endure the press painting them as ogres with a tool to reduce spending. Some Republicans seeking to abolish it likely weigh the con of the public relations disaster over the pro of sound policy. Perhaps others regard jettisoning the law as an act of pragmatism that tacitly admits that whatever the debt ceiling’s potential for good it never actually did much good.
The arguments against the existence of debt ceiling, like those against imposing it, sound more like rationalizations. The familiar refrain for raising it posits that not allowing a country trillions in debt to go trillions further into debt represents recklessness and allowing a country trillions in debt to go trillions further into debt represents prudence. The notion that not raising the limit means automatic default ignores the reality that revenue, not borrowing, funds most governmental activities, so prioritized items, such as servicing the debt or national defense, need not feel the effects. Like local politicians threatening to cut school athletics or trash pickup if residents don’t raise taxes, national politicians similarly threaten to hit Americans where it hurts most (instead of just cutting where it hurts least). And borrowing does not allow one to make good on obligations. It merely passes on fulfillment of those promises to others in the future. But in tax-dollar addicted Washington, bad arguments, made loudly and often enough, become conventional wisdom.
If carrying $20 trillion — 4,4092,440,000 pounds in dollar bills — on our collective backs does not spark epiphanies, the encroachment of debt ceilings do not either. Addicts, who tend to take others down with them, generally need to hit rock bottom before they mend their ways.
Unfortunately, whenever rock bottom hits, the hole Americans find themselves in exceeds $20 trillion deep. Who can climb out of that?
Hunt Lawrence is a New York-based investor. Daniel Flynn is the author of five books.
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