John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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Debt Ceiling

Posted on April 12, 2011
It was Alexander Hamilton who first took on public debt as a political issue. Hamilton understood that if the federal government assumed the debts of the states, it would not only take on great responsibility, it would also seize great power. He was opposed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but Hamilton struck a deal with them by agreeing to move the nation’s Capitol from the Northeast closer to the Virginians’ home on the Potomac River.

Washington and the nation’s federal debt have been forever thus entwined. Our debt is different from our deficit, and the two should not be confused, but often are. Balanced budgets don’t make a dent in our debt, but these days, Washington can’t even offer the voters a balanced budget because the political pain is so excruciating for our national politicians.

The reason we have such a situation is because of entitlement spending, more specifically, Medicare and Medicaid. If you track the history of the debt ceiling, the numbers go up astronomically the longer those programs are in place.

One of the basic responsibilities of the Congress is to pay the bills. But it can’t pay the bills unless it passes a law authorizing debt. It doesn’t like to do that because authorizing more debt doesn’t sound very good. It sounds vaguely irresponsible.

One famous politician put it this way several years ago: “The fact that we are here today to debate raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. Leadership means that ‘the buck stops here.’ Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better. I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America's debt limit.”

That politician was Senator Barack Obama. Now he is the President, and guess what? He wants the Congress to raise the debt ceiling.

Wars used to be the thing that caused the most debt in America. The War of 1812 caused the big debt crisis. The Civil War plunged America from a debt of $65 million in 1860 to a debt of $2.7 billion following the war. The debt following the first World War was around $26 billion, and following the Second World War, it was $260 billion.

Lyndon Johnson thought he could pay for both guns and butter, and from the 1960’s to today, our debt ceiling has steadily increased, to somewhere close to $11 trillion.

Some Republicans want to take a firm stand against increasing the debt ceiling, while some others want to get something out of their vote.

This vote differentiates the show horses from the work horses.

Obama was a show horse in the Senate. He didn’t want to get his fingers dirty, so he voted against raising the debt limit, knowing that other, more responsible members of the Senate would do the dirty work.

Republicans who decide that they are too pristine to raise the debt limit make it harder for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to get concessions from the Democrats. If Michelle Bachman says that she isn’t going to vote to increase the debt limit, that is fine, but Boehner has got to find the votes somewhere.

Medicare is driving us off the financial cliff, and getting Medicare reform seems to me to be a pretty good tradeoff for raising the debt ceiling. That would be better than a balanced budget amendment vote, which will go nowhere.

But for Republicans to get something substantial in exchange for a vote on the debt ceiling, they need to stick together. Each Tea Party member who decides to be a show horse rather than a work horse gives more power to the Democrats and makes it harder for John Boehner to get a better deal for the taxpayer.