5 Reasons the House GOP Is to Blame

By James Fallows
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Reuters

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.

3. It fails the test of basic logic. Or perhaps basic knowledge part #2. If you look at the numbers, like the chart after the jump, you can see that budget-balancing involves a threshold choice. You can be for preserving tax cuts in toto, or you can be for cutting the deficit. But because the tax cuts have played such a major role in creating the deficit, if you have any regard for math or logic you really can't be for both. But most House Republicans are.

4. It displays a lack of tragic imagination. Many on the right have talked themselves into the view that it would be no big deal for the U.S. to go into technical default for a while. And I am sure that the "disaster strikes at midnight!" scenarios about what would happen on August 2 are way overblown. But anyone who thinks this controversy has had no effect on America's standing and assumed credit-worthiness, or that an actual default, whenever it occurred -- in late August, in September --  would not hurt us in the short and long run, needs to get out more. Out into the world, where assessments of basic American steadiness are now being recalibrated.

5. It has turned into zealotry, by which I mean utter disregard for the practical consequences of acts. A Republican demand for $16 million in cuts from the FAA budget (plus some anti-union provisions) has led to an FAA shutdown that has in turn, as the NY Times reports, led to a $25 million per day loss in fees the airlines paid to the FAA. That is, zealotry on this point has already cost the government more than ten times as much as the cuts would have saved. The most predictable consequence of a federal default, in the name of "reducing the deficit," would be a huge increase in the deficit -- through higher interest costs and lower revenues because of the resulting disruption to the economy. It doesn't matter.

The Democrats have too many problems to mention. At other times, their blind spots or special interests have been the bigger impediment to sensible policies. For what it's worth, I am in the camp that feels that President Obama's instinct for conciliation has ill-served him, his party, and the country in this instance. I wish he had made a stronger case and taken a harder line -- and that he would even now be contemplating the "14th Amendment" alternative in the national interest.

Still: When we look back on the destructive folly of this summer, none of us will be seen at our best. But the people threatening to bring out the worst are mostly in the House GOP. As David Brooks put it in his column three weeks ago:

If the debt ceiling talks fail, independent voters will see that Democrats were willing to compromise but Republicans were not. If responsible Republicans don't take control, independents will conclude that Republican fanaticism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern.

And they will be right.

One of the deficit charts, via the New York Times. For more on its background, see this earlier post.

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This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/07/5-reasons-the-house-gop-is-to-blame/242673/