From the start, it was clear that the younger leaders would try to make the federal debt limit the focus of controversy, an ideal ploy for hostage-taking. Boehner demurred. "We're going to have to deal with it as adults," he lectured the incoming Republican freshmen about the impending debt-limit debate. "Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations, and we have obligations on our part." But the Young Guns, Cantor in particular, would have no truck with such timidity. Neither would the freshmen, most of them well to the right of the Young Guns and elected with Tea Party support. And throughout, the upstarts made it absolutely clear that if their demands were not met, they would not hesitate in forcing the nation, disastrously, to default on its debts.
The Republicans either believe, or would have you believe, that the debt ceiling limits the size of the national debt and thus limits government spending. Raising it, Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina has remarked, is just another way of saying, "Well, you've got a little bit more credit – keep spending." The words "debt ceiling" or "debt limit" can certainly sound as if that's what's involved. But these assertions are false.
The debt ceiling dates back to America's entry into World War I. Contrary to a widespread misimpression, it came into existence not as a constraint on congressional spending, but in order to make government fiscal procedures less cumbersome amid the pressures of mobilizing for war. It had – and has – nothing to do with authorizing spending; Congress does that as part of the normal legislative process. Nor does the ceiling have anything to do with annual deficit levels, which explains why even today, with the deficit shrinking, Congress still needs to raise the debt ceiling. Rather, the ceiling is an artificial cap, determined by Congress, on the amount that the government can borrow to cover obligations already made.
Through the era of World War II, the limit looked to some like it might actually act as a useful check on government borrowing. But over the decades that followed, as the size of the nation's economy – and with it the national debt – grew exponentially, the debt limit became a vestige of a bygone era. By 1974, it was truly obsolete; that year Congress passed a new law compelling it to approve a budget and thus set borrowing levels annually.
The implication by the Republicans that raising the ceiling will enable the government to spend the nation into bankruptcy all the faster is utterly phony, a pseudo-crisis rooted in no real problem, a fraud manufactured and then stage-managed by the GOP to frighten the public and score political points. Indeed, it is the Republican radicals, and not the Democrats, who are threatening to throw the government into immediate bankruptcy unless they get their way over other issues, above all defunding (which means, basically, repealing) Obamacare.
You don't have to be Paul Krugman to understand all of this. Since the 1950s, economists have called the debt ceiling an experiment that failed long ago. Addressing Congress in 2003 as the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, the Ayn Rand acolyte Alan Greenspan disparaged the debt ceiling as "either redundant or inconsistent with the paths of revenues and outlays you specify when you legislate a budget." Eight years later, as the House Republicans threatened, Greenspan called the debt-limit problem "unnecessary" and said flat-out that the debt ceiling "serves no useful purpose."
For decades, though, Congress went along with raising the debt limit as a mere formality. Every year from 1941 to 1945, Congress raised the debt ceiling to accommodate the accumulating costs of World War II. Since 1960, Congress has raised the ceiling 78 times, including 18 times under Ronald Reagan, six times under Bill Clinton, seven times under George W. Bush and seven times under Barack Obama. Occasionally members of both parties have voted against raising the ceiling as a symbolic gesture to focus attention on various issues. Indeed, in 2006, Sen. Barack Obama joined every other Democrat in the Senate in voting against raising the debt ceiling, a bit of political posturing that was part of the normal cut-and-thrust on Capitol Hill.
If the debt limit is not raised when necessary, the federal government will immediately default on some of its obligations. That, in turn, would disrupt its ability to pay its creditors, from bondholders and defense contractors to recipients of Social Security and Medicare. A default that lasted for just a single day – and perhaps even the threat of such a default – would have dire effects, causing every credit agency to downgrade the nation's credit rating while presenting to the rest of the world a bizarre spectacle: the richest and most powerful nation on Earth willfully damaging both its economy and its international credibility. A default that lasted more than a few days would risk triggering a catastrophic financial crisis. Until now, no member of Congress, from either party, has seriously entertained wreaking such havoc.
Early in 2011, in keeping with cantor's plans, the Republicans threatened a government shutdown and in a last-minute deal with the White House forced cuts in discretionary spending that amounted to $79 billion more than the White House had wanted. Gearing up for his re-election campaign, Obama tried to put a good face on the outcome, calling it a "worthwhile compromise." He even seemed to boast, in words that echoed Speaker Boehner's, that it was "the largest annual spending cut in our history." But the Republicans, particularly the Young Guns and the more volatile Tea Partiers, having wounded Obama, were only getting started.
In early summer, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner used fiscal gimmicks to delay the necessity of raising the debt limit while Obama and Boehner held secret negotiations that they hoped would produce what Obama called the "Grand Bargain." They outlined a deal that would reduce projected deficits by $4 trillion over the coming decade; it included cutbacks in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits, and tax reforms that would reduce rates – with guaranteed revenues to take care of any shortfall. Boehner grew confident of a settlement. But when Cantor learned that taxes were on the table, he publicly undermined the talks, and on July 9th, Boehner killed the big deal.
Negotiations resumed a few days later, and on July 21st, another agreement was imminent – or so the White House believed. The next day, though, Boehner refused to return Obama's calls until late in the afternoon, when he informed the president that the latest deal was dead. The speaker had extracted major concessions from Obama – concessions that would have probably damaged the president badly with the Democratic base had the two sides agreed. But Boehner was undone by fear of a backlash over taxes from the Tea Party members like Jim Jordan of Ohio, who were now pressing Cantor and the other Young Guns hard from the right. Naturally, Boehner blamed Obama for the breakdowns. Thus, the House Republicans, pushed by the Tea Party, saved Obama from quite possibly committing political suicide in pursuit of his post-partisan will-o'-the-wisp going into 2012.
Meanwhile, on August 3rd, the government was scheduled to default unless Congress raised the debt limit. Legal experts as well as Democratic leaders implored the president to head off a Republican-manufactured disaster by invoking or at least citing the 14th Amendment – specifically Section 4 of the amendment, which states that "the validity of the public debt of the United States," including payments for government pensions, "shall not be questioned." The explicit purpose behind the amendment, framed and ratified in the aftermath of the Civil War, was to prevent Southern rebel sympathizers returning to Congress from using the public debt to extract political concessions – precisely what the leaders of the current Southern-based Republican Party were doing. Policies and ideology aside, the House GOP was headed toward a blatant violation of the Constitution. But Obama would have nothing to do with the 14th Amendment. "I have talked to my lawyers," he said. "They are not persuaded that that is a winning argument." And so the post-partisan president pursued a last-minute compromise.
In the nick of time, on August 2nd, Obama signed the Budget Control Act, which he, along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, had worked out with Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky days earlier – the final product of the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis. This was the disastrous sequestration bill, which mandated that on January 2nd, 2013, unless Congress approved the recommendations of a bipartisan "supercommittee" on cutting billions from the budget over the ensuing decade, massive across-the-board cuts in mandatory as well as discretionary spending, including for defense, would take effect over that same decade. The sequester mandate was deliberately designed never to take effect; rather, it was a doomsday provision, intended to spur the "supercommittee" toward a new "Grand Bargain."
The sequester plan did nothing to relieve mounting anxieties in the bond markets. On August 5th, three days after Obama signed the bill, Standard & Poor's, having issued warnings for months, announced that it was stripping the United States of its sterling AAA long-term sovereign credit rating. "The fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration recently agreed to," S&P's announcement read, "falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government's medium-term debt dynamics." But even that ominous embarrassment did not move the Republicans, who refused to bend their solemn oath never to raise any taxes and thereby killed any chance for a broader agreement. On January 2nd, the sequester bill's doomsday, the president had to sign emergency legislation to keep the country from falling off what had become known as "the fiscal cliff." But that only delayed the sequestration and did nothing to prevent future debt-ceiling crises down the road.
Sometime in the midst of these battles, Obama seems to have begun to grasp what he was up against in the Republican Party. He certainly did not repeat the old paeans to post-partisanship during his re-election campaign in 2012. Instead, he forcefully defended positive government and drew a clear line between his progressive political philosophy and that of his plutocratic opponent, who, at a secretly videotaped fundraiser of Republican donors, riffed on how 47 percent of the American people were parasites on government welfare. Republicans were dumbfounded when Obama won re-election by 5 million votes and by a landslide in the Electoral College, while the Democrats dominated the overall vote in both the House and Senate elections. In fact, the Democrats won 1.4 million votes more than the Republicans did in House elections nationally. Republicans retained the House only as a result of gerrymandering congressional districts in the states that they had won in the 2010 midterms. Yet the voters had clearly repudiated them. The themes of Romney's campaign were rejected wholesale; the results marked an utter defeat of the anti-government, pro-big-business politics that have driven the GOP for decades. Republican vulnerability with key constituencies became clear over a host of issues, from women's reproductive rights to immigration reform.
For a brief time, Republican officials playacted as though chastened. The Republican National Committee released a post-mortem report, a self-described "autopsy," calling upon the party to change its public image as the callous party of the rich and to improve its links to blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told the Republicans to "stop being the stupid party" – remarks seconded by former RNC chairman and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
Such sober second thoughts, though, never made much of a dent in the minds of congressional Republicans who, in 2013, have doubled down on their strategy of threats and disruption. Since 2010, they have sought to undermine the executive branch in any way they can. In the Senate, where the Republicans remain in the minority, they have launched more filibusters than ever before in history, blocking Obama's appointments to virtually every position they could, from federal judges to Elizabeth Warren as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Now, having been completely overrun by a radical faction within their ranks, they are practicing a variation of the subversive politics of nullification first elaborated in the 1820s by John C. Calhoun, the Southern slaveholding archreactionary. Controlling just one half of one of the three branches of government – and having won that control only because of rigged, gerrymandered districting – they are out to nullify laws they don't like, in part by blocking otherwise uncontroversial appointments of those officials required to execute them. The law they hate the most is the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare. The conservative-dominated Supreme Court, to their disbelief and horror, failed to declare the law unconstitutional in 2012. And so the Republicans are hellbent on nullifying the law by any means necessary, including paralyzing the government and, if need be, destroying the nation's financial credibility and throwing the economy into a catastrophic collapse.
How has a faction consisting of no more than four dozen House members come to exercise so much destructive power? The continuing abandonment of professional responsibilities by the nation's mainstream news sources – including most of the metropolitan daily newspapers and the television outlets, network and cable – has had a great deal to do with it. At some point over the past 40 years, the bedrock principle of journalistic objectivity became twisted into the craven idea of false equivalency, whereby blatant falsehoods get reported simply as one side of an argument and receive equal weight with the reported argument of the other side. There is no shortage of explanations for the press's abdication: intimidation at the rise of Fox News and other propaganda operations; a deep confusion about the difference between hard-won objectivity and a lazy, counterfeit neutrality; and the poisonous effects of the postmodern axiom that truth, especially in politics, is a relative thing, depending on your perspective in a tweet. Whatever the explanation, today's journalism has trashed the tradition of fearless, factual reporting pioneered by Walter Lippmann, Edward R. Murrow and Anthony Lewis.
A press devoted to searching for and reporting the truth, wherever it might lead, would have kept the public better informed of the basic details of the government shutdown and debt-ceiling showdowns. It also would have reported seriously the hard truths of the Tea Party "insurgency," including how it was largely created and has since been bankrolled by oil-and-gas moguls like David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, and by a panoply of richly endowed right-wing pressure groups like Dick Armey's FreedomWorks and Jim DeMint's Heritage Foundation. It also would have reported on the basic reason for the hard right's growing domination of the Republican Party, which has been the decay of the party at every level, including what passes for its party leadership. No figure exemplifies the problem better than the GOP's highest-ranking official, Speaker John Boehner, whose background and politics have largely escaped scrutiny.
Boehner owes his position to little more than his stolid longevity. A self-made, chain-smoking, run-of-the-mill Ohio Republican, he arrived in Congress in 1991 and rolled with the rising conservative tide. Three years later, after the Republicans won their first majority in the House in four decades, he rose as far as the lower end of the House leadership, mainly because he was pliable and came from an important swing state. His chief assignment was to raise funds, and he was delegated to serve as a party emissary to the K Street lobbyists. His most publicized moment came in 1996, when he was exposed distributing checks from the tobacco lobby to fellow Republicans on the floor of the House. Two years after that, in the internal bloodbath that cost Newt Gingrich his job as speaker, Boehner, too, was deposed from his leadership position.
With a lock on his congressional district, Boehner returned to the House and even managed to sit as chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee from 2001 to 2006 – not an especially powerful or prestigious assignment. How, then, did such a lackluster figure come to be named speaker of the House? Only because the more prominent and able veterans were guillotined, one after another, and his was the only head left intact.
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