Raising the federal debt ceiling is something that really should have been as simple and routine as it was every other time it came up. Raising the debt ceiling is not the same as spending more federal dollars: It merely acknowledges the dollars that our elected officials have already voted to spend – and obligated taxpayers to pay for.
But it hasn’t been routine because the Republicans in Congress cleverly decided to use this as leverage to get big concessions on future spending, something that wasn’t terribly hard since you can probably count on one hand the Americans who don’t agree that federal spending is out of control.
Controlling future spending doesn’t change the fact that money has already been spent and obligations made. But Republicans have refused to accept the mathematical fact that Congress cut taxes too much during the Bush administration to pay for the obligations that Congress (sometimes controlled by Republicans, sometimes by Democrats) continued to make.
Comparing federal spending with household budgeting is kind of tricky, but if you take a lower-paying job, you have to adjust your expenses accordingly. Congress didn’t do that; it kept spending and spending. I will never agree that any war worth American lives isn’t worth American tax dollars, but we weren’t asked to make a financial sacrifice. In fact, taxes were being cut even as we entered into two seemingly eternal and very expensive wars.
In the fight over the debt ceiling, Republicans managed to get the Democratic president to agree to almost $4 trillion worth of future spending cuts in exchange for less than $1 trillion in new revenue (almost entirely by closing loopholes). That’s huge. That’s historic. David Brooks, the conservative columnist in The New York Times, called it "the deal of the century" and "the mother of all no-brainers."
But because most members of the GOP foolishly signed Grover Norquist’s pledge never to allow any new taxes to be levied, the deal of the century fell apart. "That’s because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party," Brooks – a conservative, remember – wrote. "Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative."
It’s a good thing David Brooks is employed by a newspaper. If he were employed by any organization beholden to the Republican Party structure, he’d have long since gone the way of Bruce Bartlett and David Frum, conservative commentators who dared to question the party and now are free agents. Bartlett, who was fired by the National Center for Policy Analysis in 2005 for writing a book called "The Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy," wrote last week that the current crop of Republicans "are not driven by rational analysis, but by right wing dogma." And Frum, who got the boot from the American Enterprise Institute last year for daring to suggest that Republicans should have compromised on health care reform, wrote of the debt ceiling standoff: "I can also perceive a dawning awareness among House Republicans of the financial and political dangers of the crisis they have created."
It must be intellectually exhausting to be a member of the Republican Party these days. I can hardly imagine the effort it takes to control one’s brain from accidentally thinking any purely pragmatic thoughts about solving problems and governing. Intellectual exhaustion could explain the suggestion by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been in Congress since the Reagan era, that Congress walk away from not just the deal but any responsibility by giving extraordinary new powers to President Obama. I would so love to hear what McConnell says in private. I hope it is something like this:
Republicans can and must help the country be more fiscally responsible in the future. But first we all have to pay for past mistakes, even those we don’t agree with. Accept the no-brainer deal of the century, declare victory and move forward.
Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. This blog was reprinted with permission.