With Record U.S. Debt Maturing, John Boehner Matures With It

In January, Rep. John Boehner will be Speaker of the House of Representatives, where Republicans will have a 50-seat majority thanks to a historic influx of new blood of the deepest red. On the coattails of the populist Tea Party movement, the House's newcomers have clear demands: Cut down Obamacare, cut down the stimulus, cut down NPR, cut spending, cut taxes, cut the deficit.

It's easy enough to vote on a bill that you don't expect to be signed into law. For example, the GOP House can repeal Obamacare in a sentence-long act, watch a split Senate agonize over the details, and go on Meet the Press to express sadness that the will of the people found an obstacle in that other house of Congress.

But even a rambunctious House will have to, on occasion, legislate to avert the collapse of the American nation. In the first half of 2011, the US government will run out of money. That is, our outstanding obligations will pile up until they nearly hit the "debt ceiling," at which point we have a choice: raise the ceiling or stop paying our bills.

Rep. John Boehner is fortunate in many ways, but he is not lucky to preside over a caucus of newcomers who ran against the debt and who face an upcoming vote to increase the government's ability to add debt. But this vote is not like repealing the Recovery Act or health care reform, which are necessary as a matter of fulfilling political promises. Raising the debt limit is necessary as a matter of preserving a functioning government. So the man who spent the last two years playing the role of politician will suddenly have to play an adult legislator.

Thus, this:

On Thursday, Minority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio) said he's been talking to the newly elected GOP lawmakers about the need to raise the federal debt ceiling when it comes up early next year...

"We're going to have to deal with it as adults," he said, in what apparently are his most explicit comments to date. "Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part."

The game plan is gestating: use the debt ceiling vote to force Democrats to agree to spending cuts. Many Democrats will resist, the vote will serve as a crucible for arguments about borrowing and spending, and ultimately the ceiling will go up because the alternative is unimaginable chaos.

The star of this drama will be the new Speaker. In the expiring 111th Congress, John Boehner could get away with political nonsense like blasting Medicare savings during the health care debate and voting with his entire caucus against raising the debt limit. This doesn't make him unique. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, for example, voted against the debt limit when Republicans controlled Congress, before he criticized Republicans who voted against the debt limit when his party controlled Congress.

The debt ceiling is a silly rule that inspires silly votes. No government should have to hold separate votes to approve spending already passed into law. This makes it, as somebody once said, a kind of tax on the majority party. But the rabidly anti-tax Republican caucus will find that this is the one tax they simply have to pass.

Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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