From the Left: Once again, debating over national debt

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By Lance Simmens

The current game of chicken that is underway in this hopelessly political partisan wrangling over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling to allow the government to essentially pay its debts reflects the height of absurdity. The 18th century French philosopher Voltaire once wrote, “Whoever can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities,” and the Congressional Republican leadership has idiotically set out to prove they are willing to sacrifice not only the American but the global economy just to prove the point.

Although I spent six years as senior staff to the U.S. Senate Budget Committee, there is no way I can either appropriately nor accurately lay out even the broadest outlines of the Congressional Budget process in the short space allowed here. However, the reason for the existence of Appropriations Committees, Budget Committees, and Finance and Ways and Means Committees is to thoroughly consider spending and revenue legislation. There are formal processes to discern and vote on spending and revenue levels and programs that do not extort the global economy or hold nations hostage to the whims of childish and inane politicians representing grossly gerrymandered Congressional districts who have little or no regard for democratic governance.

Suffice it to say that risking default by insisting on budgetary cuts is proverbially cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. It is reckless in the extreme and flirts with economic catastrophe. According to a recent paper written by Noah Berman for the Council on Foreign Relations the repercussions for failing to adjust the debt ceiling include “a downgrade by credit rating agencies, increased borrowing costs for businesses and homeowners alike, and a drop-off in consumer confidence that could shock the U.S. financial market and tip the economy into recession. Goldman Sachs economists have estimated that a breach of the debt ceiling would immediately halt about one-tenth of US economic activity. According to center-left think tank Third Way, a breach that leads to default could cause the loss of 3 million jobs, add $130,000 to the cost of an average thirty-year mortgage, and raise interest rates enough to increase the national debt by $850 billion.”

When looking in the federal budget for places to make significant cuts, Republicans over the years have always started with a cocktail of so-called non-defense discretionary programs that serve the neediest in our society. In the current context this is merely a frantic effort to exercise political trickery for a Speaker of the House who is hanging onto his position by the thinnest of margins. Far-right Republicans are not only holding the nation’s economy hostage, but their colleagues as well.

According to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities(CBPP), “The McCarthy bill would cut discretionary programs by $3.6 trillion over the next decade below the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) recent baseline projection. Discretionary programs — also known as annually appropriated programs — are the part of the budget that covers programs such as defense, veterans’ health care, child care and preschool, medical research and public health, food and drug safety inspectors, Pell Grants and college work-study, K-12 education, environmental protection, housing, and some transportation programs, among many others … If they protect both defense and veterans’ health care from cuts, then all other non-defense discretionary programs would have to be cut 33 percent in 2024 and 59 percent in 2025.”

There is a time and place for everything, even in the halls of Congress. Refusing to pay debts already accumulated would land the ordinary citizen in jail, yet in the contemporary political environment is heralded in Congress as astute politics. It is budgetary terrorism.

While President Biden certainly has a long history of being a masterful negotiator and his initial proclivity will be to reason with the unreasonable, there are some alternative avenues that are gaining traction amongst progressive Democrats, including a proposal signed by 11 Senators and supported by an increasing number of legal scholars that revolves around Section 4 of the 14th Amendment that says the “validity of the public debt, authorized by law…shall not be questioned.”

Another potential strategy would be to secure enough votes for a discharge petition that forces a vote even if the speaker or key committees don’t want to act. This would require not only every House Democrat but five Republicans in order to succeed.

However this drama plays itself out, we are dancing precariously on the precipice of a potential economic disaster that will affect the global stage. That our nation is so hopelessly divided and since the chasm is so wide as to forego even the slightest notion that even a handful of congressmen and women can muster the courage to put policy over politics is a major embarrassment for our nation. Let us hope that integrity will rule the day.