Guest post: “The debt ceiling debate is self-evidently unpatriotic”

Guest post by colleague A. Pond: Having seen the debt ceiling turned into political tool, why should we expect any political leverage to be left on the table?

I just can’t bring myself to write about this debt ceiling mess. What begins in a farcical congressional procedure likely ends in tragedy for American governance and for so many people.

Below is a guest post by A. Pond, the pseudonym of a colleague who wishes to remain anonymous.

In policy terms, the fundamentals of the debt ceiling story have hardly changed in over a week. Meanwhile, the politics have evolved, but in predictable ways. In fact, considering politics alone, it is a mystery why the leverage the debt ceiling affords has not been exploited many times in the past to the extent it is today.

The debt ceiling debate today is a story of heretofore untapped political power. We now know that politicians of the past have been holding back. Just as the theory of profit maximization offers strong predictions of the economic negotiating behavior of firms, the maximization of bargaining leverage does so in the realm of political negotiation.

Thus, it was clear by the time Obama and Boehner spoke to the nation last Monday night that there was no chance of an “early” compromise on a big and balanced package. The time to turn the manufactured crisis into an opportunity had ended if not that night, then at least several days prior. Having seen the debt ceiling turned into political tool, why should we expect any political leverage to be left on the table?

The urging of policy wonks to do something quickly had no effect. Politics has sucked all the oxygen from the atmosphere, or at least from Washington. It is now inevitable that the clock will wind down toward possible catastrophe: an economy killing default or failure to sustain levels of spending required by law. There’s still time to act, but not much and not with anything other than a rushed half-measure. Will the globe’s leading economy be strangled by its severely dysfunctional politics, a figurative death atop the world?

The situation reminds me of the account in John Krakaur’s Into Thin Air, in which one climber (whose name I cannot recall) sat for hours in a storm near the Everest summit, refusing to descend. From the base below, his team radioed, imploring him to move, to put one foot in front of the other, to save himself from a worsening situation. Eventually the inevitable happened. His oxygen depleted, he met personal catastrophe, a literal death atop the world.

Of course, the US need not experience catastrophe by defaulting on the debt or by failing to make good on its other obligations. Even without action by Congress, the Obama Administration could decide to continue issuing debt, the so-called constitutional option.

Some say this would set a dangerous precedent. Maybe so. But one must view every decision within the context of available options. The alternative is to confirm that the debt ceiling can be taken hostage in a way never experienced before. That admits a tremendous power in Congress, giving that branch a degree of leverage over the economy never before so fully exploited. Is that not a dangerous precedent too? Do we wish to face political debt ceiling threats again, and again, and again?

Keep in mind, if Congress finds the President’s actions so egregious, it has some recourse: impeachment. If the debt ceiling can be taken hostage, any President with an interest in protecting the economy (which we can safely assume is every President there has ever been or will ever be) has no recourse.

I do not understand any argument that implies it is OK for Congress (or one chamber of it) to so easily threaten to blow up the economy. Such a thing strikes me as self-evidently unpatriotic. And, if it is unpatriotic to threaten severe economic damage, isn’t it also unpatriotic to resist the demands that would prevent it?

In brief, this is an argument for removing the debt ceiling as a congressionally-available political instrument. It’s too powerful. Its down-side is too grave. It is so potentially damaging to the nation that it should neither be employed in the service of any demand nor should any demand be resisted at the risk of that damage.

The debt ceiling, if constitutionally valid, is the ultimate trump card, the economic atomic missile aimed at America. Is it valid? Should it be? Does Congress possess the codes to this nuclear weapon? Or in this realm, is the President the commander in chief? If he is, will he act like it? If Congress fails the nation, only by the President’s actions can we learn the answers to these questions.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

11 thoughts on “Guest post: “The debt ceiling debate is self-evidently unpatriotic””

  1. The debt ceiling crisis is the result of a self-imposed conflict of obligations. Congress passed the law creating the debt ceiling and also passed the laws requiring deficit spending (with the full knowledge of that fact), obligating itself to increase the debt. One cannot responsibly do both without the intention of raising the ceiling as necessary to meet obligations. A “balanced budget amendment” would only make things worse by turning this self-imposed artificial limit into a Constitutional crisis.

    The debt ceiling is an obvious sham intended to be used for grandstanding. We shouldn’t be surprised when the same body that passed such a sham abuses it when it perceives a political advantage in doing so.

  2. While I agree that the debt ceiling law puts great power in the hands of Congress, isn’t it nearly the same power as Congress’s budgetary authority?
    I presume Congress could eliminate debt repayment from the regular budget, which would similarly cause the United States to default (given no Presidential/constitutional override).

    As I understand it, the debt ceiling is a redundancy that only allows Congress to contradict itself by refusing to provide previously-budgeted money.

    What I find most fascinating/horrifying about national politics of the last decade or so is that the Republican Party is playing it like the last round of Prisoner’s Dilemna; going for short-term small-scope gains, without the restraint one would expect if they expected there to be future rounds.

    Any decent public policy needs to allow for the possibility that there will be a future.

  3. Also – if President Obama is faced with a partisan refusal to provide enough money to fund the budget, I think he has clear ethical and legal authority to allocate the available funds however he sees fit (up to budgeted amounts). So maybe we can’t afford an offensive military, “faith-based” services, untargeted surveillance of Americans, Guantanamo, etc. – because we absolutely have to fund education, environmental protection, science, diplomacy, rail systems, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.

    I’m just saying he could, you know, if he wanted to.

  4. “What I find most fascinating/horrifying about national politics of the last decade or so is that the Republican Party is playing it like the last round of Prisoner’s Dilemna; going for short-term small-scope gains, without the restraint one would expect if they expected there to be future rounds.”

    Interesting observation, Eric–apocalyptic politics.

  5. It’s too late. In order to lose the debt-ceiling Congress would have to rein itself in. To self-check itself. This might have been possible 15 years ago, but not now. The country has become wickedly partisan for a variety of reasons: Fox News, the Conservapedia, the “Big (internet) Sort”, income inequality, and now I see the republicans are even pushing an alternative to AARP.

    We are at war. Have been at war for over a decade. I blame the foreigner Murdoch mostly for this. This Beast, his Chinese concubine, and his Saudi prince has done more harm to American than 40 Osama bin Ladens. They’ve convinced Hillbilly Bob and Geriatric Jim to hate science, liberals, gays, arabs, taxes, the US govt, and compromise. And Murdoch has done this using the exact sort of potent language I employed in the third sentence of this paragraph that made you moue and demure…

    Again we are at war. Look at Boehner’s bill. The heart of it is to do this debt-ceiling a few months thither. To eat willowy Obama’s lunch in negotiations again and again. Anybody expecting the Tea Party to vote to take away the debt ceiling (take off their suicide vests) is living in the past. That’s like thinking the Stock Market is your father’s Stock Market. It isn’t. Buy-and-hold is gone forever. Invest in America is gone forever. The stock market is now all about leeching the sheep via computer driven-trading megacycles. And just as the Stock Market won’t ever be the same again in your lifetime, same with Congress.

    I find it endlessly interesting as a trend that the “dysfunction” word finally bubbled out of Obama’s lips the other day on national TV. Anybody reading me, or any of a thousand other commenters, knows that this was a grass roots idea that bubbled up from comment threads, onto main stream blog posts, into NYT op-eds, and now finally out of the president’s mouth. I suspect he dithered for hours over whether to use that word…

    Here is another grass roots idea that is in the process of bubbling up: We are at war with Murdoch’s and Norquist’s cultivated army of true believers and their various billionaire funders. When I say war I mean war. There will be no compromise. One side will win. One side will lose. There will be no Hegelian hybrid born of the two. No treaty forthcoming. The barbarians are coming for your Social Security, your AARP, your Medicare, your Schools, your Science. They’ve got guns and knives and billionaire money. We’ve got a president and a main-stream press that believes in bipartisan compromise, and an ignorant population, the majority of which, probably doesn’t even know the name of the Vice President…

    This is the worst of all possible worlds. And since we are at war, it won’t get better until the left finds a way to coalesce around a few generals to lead them into battle. We have no Murdoch, no Limbaugh, no Norquist threatening to primary any Democrat who would compromise on Social Security. There is a vacuum of leadership. And it a time of war, this is fatal…

  6. Thank you, who ever you are. I can’t imagine the folks in Washington will listen but it has to be said. Thank you.

  7. koreyel – “We are at war with Murdoch’s and Norquist’s cultivated army of true believers and their various billionaire funders. When I say war I mean war. There will be no compromise. One side will win. One side will lose. There will be no Hegelian hybrid born of the two. No treaty forthcoming.”

    Bingo. Nail on head, sir. All my life I’ve pushed back against trust-funded, self-styled ‘revolutionaries’ who strow meaningless epithets like “smash the state,” but your words strike an increasingly familiar chord. We didn’t pick this fight, this fight picked us, and if we (as in everyone NOT included in “Murdoch’s and Norquist’s cultivated army of true believers and their various billionaire funders”) and our elected representatives do not fully internalize and accordingly act on this obvious reality, we’re screwed.

    A perfect example is the observation (no cite) that Congress, as of this debt-ransoming by America’s own wild eyed fundamentalists, is no longer in any functional way the Congress of even five years ago. Our federal (and increasingly sate) political system has been corrupted and distorted so thoroughly by the scorched earth, any-means-necessary tactics of modern conservatives that there is no going back, no return to anything even remotely resembling ‘comity’ and ‘compromise’. We are, indeed, at war, a war that will determine for generations what kind of a country the US will be. The closest parallel might be the Civil War era in terms of forced division of sentiment, but the reality, as you point out, is now.

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