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Deficit Predators: Everything You Need to Know About the Twisted, Dangerous Debt Ceiling Fight

The debt ceiling is an exercise in bad faith. And any deal that cuts social programs will be catastrophic for millions of Americans.
 
 
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News reports hold that President Obama scored a political victory by agreeing to put Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block to achieve a “go-big” $4 trillion deficit reduction. Speaker Boehner had to concede that Republicans won’t vote for any package that includes tax increases – and the deal died. So the gambit worked and the President emerged with a solid image as the alpha deficit hawk.

To which one can only say: how nice for him.

We’re in a summer that only Salvador Dali could paint, a reality so twisted that one almost yearns for the simple verities of the War on Terror or even the invasion of Iraq. Then as now, to be serious one must be a “hawk.” (The dove is a weakling, a loser, and the owl for practical purposes does not exist.) So let’s review some of the strange and mysterious faces of this ugly, vicious bird.

The debt ceiling was first enacted in 1917. Why? The date tells all: we were about to enter the Great War. To fund that effort, the Wilson government needed to issue Liberty Bonds. This was controversial, and the debt ceiling was cover, passed to reassure the rubes that Congress would be “responsible” even while the country went to war. It was, from the beginning, an exercise in bad faith and has remained so every single second to the present day.

Today this bad-faith law is pressed to its absurd extreme, to force massive cuts in public programs as the price of not-reneging on the public debts of the United States. Never mind that to force default on the public obligations of the United States is  plainly unconstitutional. Section 4 of the 14th amendment says in simple language that public debts, once duly authorized by law and including pensions, by the way, “shall not be questioned.” The purpose of this language was to foreclose, to put beyond politics, any possibility that the Union would renege on debts and pensions and bounties incurred to win the Civil War. But the application is very general and the courts have ruled that the principle extends to the present day.

What is going on in Congress at this moment  already violates that mandate. It is an effort to subvert the authority of the government to meet and therefore to incur obligations of every possible stripe. It is an attack on the concept of government itself – as the “Tea Party” by its very name would no doubt agree. It therefore paints those deficit hawks who are using the debt ceiling to take budget hostages as enemies of the United States Constitution.

The President, though supposedly a constitutional expert and though sworn to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution,  will not say this. Instead he appears to treat the Constitution as an optional matter, to which he will not resort, in the hope that by negotiating with the hostage- takers he can reach some reasonable outcome that will preserve everyone’s good name. (The great Harvard legal scholar Laurence Tribe  recently argued that the President cannot defy the debt ceiling on his own. That’s a debatable point.) It is as though Lincoln in 1861 faced with the siege of Sumter had sat down with Confederate commissioners to see what could be worked out.

In Washington it appears that this assault on government has a large measure of elite and media support, if not on the crass details or vulgar personalities but because it could conceivably force the parties to do “what they should do anyway” – namely come to a long-term deficit and debt agreement. Such an agreement would cut spending, raise some taxes, put the projected debt-to-GDP ratio on a declining track, and solve the “government’s fiscal crisis.”

 
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