America’s opportunity with the debt ceiling

Eyeglasses with newspaper and coffee cup

On Friday, liberal Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent provided a very solid analysis on how the debt ceiling is likely to be a problem not for President Obama, but for the Republican Party. He concluded with the following:

If Republicans are willing to force a choice between destroying the economy and gutting popular social programs, let them wallow in that winning message. If they’re willing to tank the economy to get what they want — after taking a shellacking in the election and proving so dysfunctional that they could not pass tax cuts for everyone but the ultra-wealthy without substantial Democratic help — then it’s on them. Just leave it there.

Sargent’s analysis is worth reading in full, because he is absolutely right. If the Republican Party thinks in the traditional, short-sighted ways of Washington (Sargent notes Speaker Boehner and Newt Gingrich have already come out on the record as speaking in this fashion), the debt ceiling will indeed doom it in the eyes of the public. It will also largely eliminate the party’s already-reduced ability and willingness to hold strong on solving the overspending problem in Washington.

However, this is not a certainty as of yet. Here is one strategy the GOP can use the debt ceiling to help the country:

1. First, at no time in the last few years has the GOP effectively explained the impact of the national debt on the American people. There has been no widespread effort to talk about the academic data showing the debt is likely slowing our economy’s growth or how those who oppose reforming Medicare and Social Security are the ones driving the programs to bankruptcy. There has been almost no explanation of the threat of inflation, or how to best reform the tax code for the benefit of all Americans.

2. Second, Tea Party-minded Members of Congress need to explain to the American people that breaching the debt ceiling is not a default on America’s debt. This is a common misconception in the public, largely due to misleading media reports and political statements. The fact is that hitting the debt ceiling would simply mean the federal government would have to balance the budget in one day. Social Security, Medicare, defense, and interest payments could all be covered, with a small amount of room to spare.

Will it cause pain? Absolutely. Is that pain less than what the nation will face if we hit the entitlement fiscal cliff coming our way? Without doubt.

3. Third, those who want spending cuts in exchange for an increase in the debt ceiling, or who oppose raising the ceiling at all, must rebut partisan and inaccurate statements like the following from Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA):

We raise the debt ceiling for a simple reason: to pay our bills. As President Obama said this week, Congress can’t stop paying the tab for things that Congress has already approved.

Many politicians and other Americans appear to believe the debt ceiling is about future bills. This is not true. As pointed out on this blog on Monday:

The debt ceiling does not get raised to pay bills already in hand. It goes up to pay for future spending. It also gives the current Congress the chance to check the fiscal irresponsibility of past Congresses, who do not have to deal with the consequences of their decisions.

Also, there is nothing that says Congress can’t stop paying the tab for anything. Certainly, for example, the implicit promises in Social Security and Medicare won’t continue if/when those programs go bankrupt. And considering that the fiscal cliff debate was entirely about overturning spending cuts initiated by the same politicians 16 short months earlier, why can’t Congress also overturn its intent to deficit-spend?

4. Sargent makes the very valid point that Republicans could very well be tarred by the debt ceiling debate. However, remember that the very centrist House Republican budget proposal was derided as shoving Grandma off the cliff, and Speaker Boehner’s Plan B was declared to be too conservative. Basically, no matter what the Republicans do, their party is going to get hammered in many media circles.

Rather than ignore this reality, or shrugging it off, Tea Party-minded Members of Congress need to get their message about the necessity of stopping overspending ready for launch. The attacks against them have already started, and there is a definite need for effective combating the many misleading claims being publicized. While we all wish we lived in a world of perfectly unbiased media, the reality is very different, and to not blunt its impact is an error many in the GOP have made during the fiscal debates over the last two years. And the nation will continue to suffer if this error is not fixed.

5. Related to Point 4, fiscal conservatives should stand tall and speak the truth: if the GOP is harmed through tough negotiating on the fiscal cliff, the consequences are worth dealing with. The GOP is not trying to shut the government down. It is merely providing a framework under which the government will spend less in the future. To paraphrase Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), we are going to have to cut spending soon. The question is whether the country will do it voluntarily, or if our debtors will make those decisions. Not taking care of overspending now will cause a great deal more harm to the poor, seniors, and others proponents of big government claim to care about than any breach of the debt ceiling.

One of the major problems in Washington is that politics is treated like a football game – join one “team” or the other. A political party or movement should always be a means to an end, not an end in and of itself, yet that is how many Republicans and Democrats view themselves. Tea Party-minded Members of Congress must prevent themselves from falling into this trap. After all, does it matter if the GOP is harmed as a party if the nation as a whole is saved from a fiscal collapse?

History shows Sargent’s analysis is correct; the GOP will fail to hold the line on spending cuts as we get closer to the debt ceiling, and the nation will continue to pile debt on the backs of young Americans. Tea Party-minded Members of Congress and activists must have an effective strategy going into these debates in order that the debt ceiling is used as an American opportunity instead of a failure.