5 Reasons the House GOP Is to Blame

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Many Republican readers have written to ask why I have posted "partisan" charts, like the one after the jump, that use data from the Congressional Budget Office and elsewhere to show that tax cuts over the past decade have played a huge role in creating mammoth federal debt.

In my view, these have been "charts," rather than "partisan charts." And to me their significance is less in allocating responsibility for creating the problem than in clarifying the real options for dealing with it.

Still, anyone who thinks I am mainly blaming the Republicans for the needless debt-ceiling fracas, especially the Tea Party-era House Republicans arrayed behind Rep. Eric Cantor (and Rep. Jim Jordan), is correct. To put the reasons in one place, as things go down to the wire, here they are:

1. The debt-ceiling showdown represents hostage-taking, plain and simple. This is a "crisis" that need never have happened, regardless of which party controlled the White House.

You wouldn't know it from most news coverage, but there is no logical or legislative connection between the House Republicans' stated object of concern, the future budgetary path toward national solvency, and the bonds and notes the Treasury must keep issuing for programs this and previous Congresses have already voted into law. (Ie, additional debt.) It is a quirk of legislative history, not a principle of sound budgeting, that we calculate a "debt ceiling" at all, those debts being a predictable consequence of the programs Congress enacts. That's why increases in the ceiling in the past have been routine measures, or occasions for minor grandstanding. These minor episodes include then-Senator Obama's vote against an increase in 2006. That one passed, as of course did six other increases under George W. Bush (along with 17 18 under Ronald Reagan, nine under George H.W. Bush, and six under Bill Clinton). You can read historical details from the Congressional Research Service in PDF form.

Here's a comparison: Suppose, by similar quirk, there was an arbitrary ceiling on the amount of ammunition the U.S. military could buy each year. Or the amount of fuel for drones, bombers, and Humvees. Like overall national debt, these purchases are foreseeable consequences of previous political decisions -- in this case, about the wars the country decides to fight. But suppose that when the "ammo ceiling" came due for its routine extension, a group of legislators said they would refuse. No more bullets or jet fuel after August 2, and for good measure no more food for the troops, unless demands for radical change in future foreign policy were met in full. That would rightly be seen as blackmail, and as a reckless willingness to damage the nation for partisan ends. A similar reckless exercise in blackmail is underway now, with the difference that the consequences can be longer-lasting and worse.

2. The House GOP position fails the test of basic knowledge. Last night I listened to a Tea Party member from the House explain why there could be no tax increases as part of the deal -- raising taxes is the last thing you need in a recession. In the next sentence, he said that the main virtue of a proposed GOP plan, versus Harry Reid's, is that it made deeper budget cuts right away, though even deeper short-term cuts were essential.

No one had pointed out to him, or he had forgotten, or he didn't realize, that during a recession, raising taxes and cutting budgets are bad for the same reason. They both reduce demand and make a recession worse. You can argue that taxes shouldn't go up in a recession. But if you make that case, as the Republicans (and most Democrats) do, you look like a hack or ignoramus if you insist on short-term budget cuts during the same economic hard times. Most House Republicans argue both sides of this case.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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