Both Sides Aren't To Blame for Debt Ceiling Crisis

This isn't a case where Congress as a body isn't working right.

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There are many times when “Washington” falls down on the job, when “ Congress” can’t do its job, and when “both sides” are to blame for whatever the failure of the moment is. Blaming both sides is easier than thinking, but it also has the virtue of sometimes being true. This is not one of those times. Let’s be very clear: The current debt ceiling crisis is the deliberate creation of the Republican Party, especially its Tea Party wing of fanatics.

[ See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]

Let’s start from the beginning. Raising the debt ceiling is a routine legislative matter. The debt ceiling was raised 18 times under Ronald Reagan; nine times under George H. W. Bush; six times under Bill Clinton; and seven times under George W. Bush. Sometimes the opposition party will use the occasion to score some political points (as when then-Sen. Barack Obama voted against raising the ceiling in 2006). But that was just political theatre because heretofore everyone understood that the United States could not default on its legal obligations, be they money owed to owners of maturing bonds or to Social Security check recipients, military personnel serving around the world, or border security guards expecting to get paid, or any other of dozens of functions of government that have been legally authorized.

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It’s worth underscoring this point: The debt ceiling isn’t about new spending. It’s not about a “blank check” as GOP talking points would have you believe. It’s about paying bills that are coming due for goods and services that Congress and the president have already acquired. It’s as if you called your credit card and utility companies and told them that you were very sorry but in the name of fiscal responsibility you just wouldn’t be paying your bills. That’s neither fiscally conservative nor fiscally responsible. I can actually remember a time when conservatives stood for things like fiscal and individual responsibility. [See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

But powered by an angry base that, frankly, doesn’t understand the issue and actively opposes the very notion of legislative compromise, the GOP decided to deliberately manufacture a crisis around raising the debt ceiling. It was, in the memorable words of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a “ leverage moment,” to extract policy concessions from President Obama. But the GOP’s hostage wasn’t some esoteric or super liberal Obama initiative. It was a routine measure necessary for the continued healthy functioning of the economy.

But even starting from the negotiating positions of a clean debt ceiling increase versus a debt ceiling increased tied to huge spending cuts, the GOP has been recalcitrant as Democrats have moved steadily in their direction. As Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen notes:

  • Democrats asked Republicans to pass a clean bill, just as GOP leaders had supported many times in the past. Republicans said, “No.”
  • Democrats invited Republicans to Biden-led bipartisan talks. Republicans quit.
  • Democrats offered a $2.4 trillion debt-reduction package, 83% of which would come from spending cuts. Republicans said, “No.”
  • Democrats sought a Grand Bargain, with more than $4 trillion in savings. Republicans said, “No.”
  • Several Democrats offered some preliminary support for the “Gang of Six” blueprint. Republicans said, “No.”
  • Many more Democrats signaled support for the McConnell/Reid “Plan B.” Republicans said, “No.”

The Republican solution was to pass the radical “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” Tea Party pipe dream plan. Then last night they were supposed to pass House Speaker John Boehner's plan which would have--wait for it--mandated that we go through this whole exercise again in six months. Because, apparently, the Tea Party is the only group in America that has enjoyed this experience. [ Check out editorial cartoons about the GOP.]

Of course Boehner’s bill didn’t pass because House conservatives, apparently having convinced themselves that it stood some sort of chance of becoming law (it didn't), were unsatisfied with the size of their legislative victory. These people are worse than the annoying sports radio fan who calls in and asserts that the home team should trade a couple of utility infielders, a couple of marginal prospects, an aging reliever, and a bag of balls to the Mariners for reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez … and cash. The Tea Party is in fact the next caller, the one who blasts that fantastical trade scenario as giving up too much.

The GOP chaos would be funny but for the fact that while they get on the same page regarding a bill that is a nonstarter in the Senate, time is ticking down to a point where the United States is not going to be able to pay its bills.

It may be true that no one here can play this game, but right here and now all the of the errors are being made by the GOP side of the field.