Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Return of Fiscal Dueling Banjos

News consumers have been enjoying a holiday. For the last several weeks the number of stories originating from the District of Columbia having to do with the budgetary battles of Congress have been minimal. To be sure there have been fiscal cliff postmortems and think pieces about trillion-dollar coins, but very little in the way of sweet noise from the chief antagonists. This has created space for a diversity of big frontpage stories: the impending U.S. escape from Afghanistan; the hottest year on record in the U.S.; France's exercise of its old colonial prerogative by bombing Islamist fighters in Northern Mali (recalling the infamous words of David Lloyd George, "We insisted on reserving the right to bomb niggers"); and Cuomo's leadership on new gun laws.

But yesterday, according to a story by Jackie Calmes and Jonathan Weisman that appears discretely tucked away on page A15 of today's National Edition, Obama called a press conference to reiterate his debt-ceiling arguments:
“They will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy,” Mr. Obama vowed in the East Room, a week before his second inauguration. “The financial well-being of the American people is not leverage to be used. The full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip.” 
House Speaker John A. Boehner, immediately after Mr. Obama’s news conference, said in a statement: “The American people do not support raising the debt ceiling without reducing government spending at the same time. The consequences of failing to increase the debt ceiling are real, but so, too, are the consequences of allowing our spending problem to go unresolved.”
So with about a month to go before the government runs out of money it appears we're back to the nauseating fiscal-cliff theater of dueling banjos. Republicans are going to insist on a bald lie, that their threat to meltdown global financial markets has the popular support of the American people. And while in some tangentially connected way one could argue that most people would agree that it is not wise to spend more money than one has, that's not the case here.  What the debt ceiling is about is paying for spending that has already been approved by the very body that is now threatening -- in a singular display of deadbeat behavior -- not to pay. As Obama says,
And -- and I just want to repeat, because I think sometimes the American people understandably aren’t following all -- all the debates here in Washington, raising the debt ceiling does not authorize us to spend more. All it does is say that America will pay its bills. And we are not a deadbeat nation. And the consequences of us not paying our bills, as I outlined in my opening statement, would be disastrous.
At the end of the Calmes and Weisman story the absurdity of the GOP position is given a two-paragraph airing.  Even if you tally all the cuts House Republicans want to see in exchange for a debt-ceiling increase -- cuts to Medicaid, to food stamps, to children's health insurance, to Meals on Wheels and other anti-poverty programs -- and you combine them with the across-the-board reductions that will take hold once the sequester kicks in at the beginning of March, this comes to a savings of $900 billion over ten years, or enough to raise the debt ceiling for one year. Then the whole dark drama has to be repeated in 2014, an election year.

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