Posted by Brad @ 3:25 pm on July 21st 2011

The Republicans on the Debt Ceiling as Objectively Insane

I don’t normally get up in arms much about the “mainstream media”, but am I the only person who is a bit bothered by the at-this-point-standard characterization of Republicans who are trying to get spending concessions in return for raising the debt ceiling as being either objectively insane or some kind of supervillians out to destroy the American economy?

I understand the need to raise the debt ceiling and not default on our debt, as a short term practical matter, but it seems to me that the conversation should not begin with “here is this pure formality that we have done 74 times since 1962 and requires absolutely no thought or debate,” but rather “our spending is so disproportionate to our revenue that not only do we have to take out massive debt to pay for it, but we have to INCREASE the amount of debt we take with each passing year.”

The problem, it seems to me, begins not with fair weather intransigence on spending cuts or tax increases, but rather on a fundamental disinclination to deal with a government that costs more than can be afforded.

We are financing the majority of our government spending by borrowing money we have no intention of paying back. And it’s the people NOT choosing to annually rubber stamp an exacerbation of that problem who are the fiscal lunatics?


  1. No, I think you have constructed a gigantic strawman out of what everyone except tea party-ish GOP house members are saying. The President, the Dems, and many members of the GOP have generally come to some sort of workable compromise (after months of debate rather than your rubber stamp characterization) which in effect comprises a multi-trillion dollar reform bargain that is about 83% spending reductions to 17% revenue increases, mostly from tax hole closures, tax expenditure changes, and some tax break sunsetting. It includes some not insignificant structural changes to SS calculations, though certainly less than I would hope to pursue. So yes, I think the House GOP is playing a horrific game of economic chicken with enormous risks.

    Comment by Jack — 7/21/2011 @ 6:41 pm

  2. And to clarify, the House GOP is not satisfied with fiscal solvency, the have absolutely insisted on fiscal solvency achieved only through spending cuts, often excluding even the possibilty of tax loophole or tax expenditure changes.

    Comment by Jack — 7/21/2011 @ 6:43 pm

  3. If the House GOP were not holding out for the best possible deal, the aforementioned compromise would not have been put on the table, and we would still be rolling with the “pure formality” attitude that Brad accurately describes.

    I am with Brad on this. When otherwise rational public commentators start referring to members of the House majority as “terrorists”, something is awry.

    If an actual default occurs, I suspect I will come out with guns ablaze. Im the meantime, I am not about to go wild with rage about the GOP for holding out. The status quo is simply worse than any scenario short of outright default.

    Comment by Rojas — 7/21/2011 @ 8:19 pm

  4. And I call conveniently ideological bullshit. The House GOP had a fantastic offer weeks ago. They had a pretty damn good offer months ago (Simpson Bowles). They have walked away at every opportunity, endangering the possibility of an agreement, and positioned themselves as opposed to any and all things that might increase revenue, no matter how clearly logical. I recognize, just as i did during the fiscal year budget negotiations, that there a segment of the GOP that sees waiting to the last minute as tactically useful, but I think there is also a definate group that is just unconvincible no matter how good the deal.

    Comment by Jack — 7/21/2011 @ 10:44 pm

  5. The Bowles-Simpson recommendations met, at the time, with qualified approval from the GOP and with wholesale rejection by the progressive left. At no point did Obama endorse the committee’s recommendations; indeed, he took several of the core tenets of the plan off the table in his ensuing State of the Union speech. I suspect that Bowles-Simpson looks pretty good to the Dems at this point given the direction the debate has taken. We may even come back around to a large part of Bowles-Simpson as the Gang of Six compromise. But it’s just plain revisionism to claim that there was ever a moment at which said plan was offered to the GOP as a compromise position. If we get Bowles-Simpson at this point, it will only be because the right wing of the GOP dragged America kicking and screaming into it.

    There is a segment of the GOP that will indeed fail to vote for any plan that extends the debt ceiling. There is a larger segment that will reject any compromise plan that increases taxes. Those people are pulling the debate in their direction. That is how negotiation works. The existence of these political elements as a small minority in Congress is a minor problem. The existence of a political center–an overwhelming majority, in Congress and out–that finds permanent debt to be acceptable is a MAJOR problem and an existential threat to the United States.

    A default will represent a failure on the part of the negotiating parties to achieve any of their ends, and should that happen they will justifiably reap the whirlwind. Brad’s objection, and mine, is to the screeching hysteria that has ensued, not from the fact of a default, but from a negotiating stance. We both find it absolutely amazing that an environment of permanent debt is considered to be a perfectly sane and normal alternative, and that DEPARTURE from said norm turns the commentariat into shreiking banshees.

    Comment by Rojas — 7/21/2011 @ 11:50 pm

  6. I think what you’re missing is that there’s a large enough contingency of Republicans, certainly loud enough, that are actively fighting the very notion that it would be a problem if we didn’t increase the debt ceiling.

    You can fault the media for this, but you should also just accept the political environment for what it is. There is little to no incentive for a Republican who is worried about not raising the debt ceiling to stick his or her neck out and make public statements expressing concern. So the crazies dominate media coverage.

    And on the other side, there’s every incentive for Democrats to paint said crazies as the ones to blame. After all, the crazies deny even the need to negotiate and raise the debt ceiling.

    Note that this ties into what Rojas is saying. The sane Republicans have no reason to make public reassuring statements because letting the crazies dominate the media coverage arguably strengthens their negotiating hand with Obama.

    I do think that Rojas puts too much blame on Obama for not embracing Simpson-Bowles. Obama embracing Simpson-Bowles would be the best way of ensuring that it never passes. If we get Simpson-Bowles it’s only because Obama kept his distance from it long enough for it to be seen as a viable compromise.

    Comment by VALiberaltarian — 7/22/2011 @ 11:50 am

  7. OK, let me first admit that today I played Brajas against my progressive-ish coworker, so there is a not insignificant amount of devil’s advocacy going on here. BUT, I strongly disagree with Rojas first paragraph, in particular the first sentence, in comment 5. I think you make one obvious and intentional distortion, as well as have a different historic memory than I am willing to accept. Contrasting the GOP against the progressive left is just plain unfair. If you want to say “qualified GOP support” and contrast it with “qualified dem support, both parties having elements in dire opposition,” then I can grudgingly accept that part. But no, you conflate equivalency between the GOP as a whole and the nearly powerless progressive left. The Tea Party is far more powerful a political force than the progressive left, but that seams to be an opinion you may reject, so ymmv. Secondly, I am sorta with Sullivan in that Obama played his cards close to his chest and did not endorse Simpson Bowles, at least partially, for fear his very endorsement would serve as a lightning rod for opposition. But even if true, I really think you are intentionally focusing on the progressive opposition to SB while completely ignoring, and recasting as qualified GOP support, the tea partyesque opposition, an opposition that has dramatically hardened.

    If you say “There is a segment of the GOP that will indeed fail to vote for any plan that extends the debt ceiling” then I think you are admitting to a GOP segment whose judgment is, in politispeak, insane. If you further admit that “There is a larger segment that will reject any compromise plan that increases taxes” you are acknowledging a segment that is deeply irrational, concerned only with taxes and not with actual fiscal solvency. Maybe they are not “insane,” but still, what do you want to call that? I mean a complete unwillingness to even consider any restructuring, even one that moves us closer to core conservative entitlement and spending reform, if it involves anything that smells of revenue increase?

    Comment by Jack — 7/22/2011 @ 6:44 pm

  8. And yes, I recognize the tactics of the situation, and I was very tolerant of the deadline tactics for the FY11 budget process. But we are approaching a dangerous situation here with the debt ceiling, and I think that is not at all a hyperbolic statement. Some would call it far worse thand “dangerous.”

    Comment by Jack — 7/22/2011 @ 6:48 pm

  9. VAL is very persuasive here. It does stand to reason that if the likes of Brad and I are going to allow the radicals to dominate the conversation for the sake of the (ideologically) best possible deal, that we are going to hear a lot of shouting about said radicals. I suppose we will have to accept some of the screaming (Sullivan is in AMAZING form at the moment) if it produces desirable policy.

    Jack is bothered by my dichotimizing of the Republican center and the progressive left. It’s a fair complaint, but not a deliberate tactic on my part. To be completely honest, those are the only two major segments of the electorate whom I remember weighing in on Bowles-Simpson at all. Paul Ryan voted against, but more with a “meh” than with a howl of outrage. The Tea Partiers in general didn’t seem to care. Pelosi cared, very much and very loudly. Is a comparison of the leadership of the two parties a fairer standard? In any case, my point was: there has never, at any point, been a moment at which a majority of Democrats supported Bowles-Simpson, let alone put it forward as a concrete alternative for Republicans to accept or reject.

    Jack renews the assertion that the default-acceptance caucus is insane, and that those who reject tax increases in any form are unwise. I’ve no wish to dispute the point, and to be frank I’m not too terribly pleased with Dr. Paul at the moment on the issue. But I will remind him of Brad’s larger point: this fragmentary minority of Republicans exists in contrast to a massive centrist constituency that advocates permanent debt. I remain more worried about the latter than the former.

    Comment by Rojas — 7/22/2011 @ 11:18 pm

  10. I would suggest that given that the Democratic Party is comparatively more ideologically diverse than the GOP (take your pick of how you measure, either the range of the members in Congress or the self-identification of their voters) it’s going to be easier for the GOP to come up with a proposal that works for the majority of their members. Any proposal that gets the support of the majority of the Democrats is already going to be seen as a compromise by the various factions within the party.

    Comment by VALiberaltarian — 7/24/2011 @ 3:40 pm

  11. The implication being that the Democratic party’s official proposal ought to be seen as the compromise solution by default?

    Comment by Rojas — 7/24/2011 @ 9:55 pm

  12. The implication is up to your own interpretation.

    On the one hand, it means that coming together to produce a “Democratic” proposal instead of an Obama proposal or Reid proposal is going to be difficult and require its own series of negotiations. I think we’ve seen that when we hear leaks of proposals in the Obama-Boehner negotiations and House Democrats freak out.

    It means that given that any “Democratic” proposal is seen as a compromise, any further compromise with the GOP is likely to upset one or more of the factions that worked out the original plan. So they’ll freak out. Either to protect the original deal or to at least reduce the number of concessions they give up in negotiating with the GOP.

    Right now there’s a Reid proposal that may or may not have enough Democratic support to be called the “Democratic” proposal. Certainly there’s some ranking to the outcomes, where the Gang of Six Democrats might prefer their proposal first but would be willing to back Reid’s proposal. Given the way it cuts spending I suspect it would be supported by House Democrats, but that’s not really enough. The House GOP has to come along. And what is it that they want?

    Comment by VALiberaltarian — 7/25/2011 @ 11:44 am

  13. It’s nice not feeling the need to jump into the comments on my own post – I think Rojas represented my POV about perfectly.

    One thing to add.

    In addition to the negotiation side of things, Tom Cole was interviewed on NPR this morning and I think was about the first Republican I’ve heard put my basic stance into words.

    The NPR interviewer was grilling him about “Is this really the best way to have this conversation? By playing with the financial security of America? Aren’t you almost driving us off a cliff to make a point? How can you play politics with something as important as the debt ceiling” – legitimate questions, but still with that patina of condescension (or rather, just the air of complete non-understanding of a different perspective).

    Cole’s response was very simple (very paraphrased): “That this is hard, that this is a very difficult, heated argument, threatening real consequences, and that this debate bogs down the nation’s business, is not a bug of the debt limit. It is a feature. It SHOULD be hard, it should extract a heavy political toll. It SHOULD be one of the most burdensome, dangerous bills to bring to the United States Congress with no assurance that it’ll even get done. I view one of the great side benefits of this whole debate as being the fact that raising the debt ceiling will never be easy again. The problem is not that raising the debt ceiling is so hard this time. The problem is that raising the debt is so easy, every other time.”

    Sort of how I feel about it.

    Comment by Brad — 7/27/2011 @ 9:24 am

  14. Meh, Cole’s response might sound nice, but it’s historically inaccurate. This is a bug of the debt limit, not a feature.

    Comment by VALiberaltarian — 7/27/2011 @ 12:49 pm

  15. Yeah, I guess I could take that Tom Cole quote a bit more seriously, except that as best I can tell Tom has supported and voted for every Iraq and Afghan spending authorization, hasn’t met a farm bill he didn’t like, voted for the Bush tax cuts and several others, and appears to have voted for Medicare part D. So kinda hard to take him serious in his newly discovered fiscal responsibility. Am I distorting his record, or is it simply irrelevant?

    Comment by Jack — 7/27/2011 @ 10:30 pm

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