Opponents of the debt ceiling bill making its way through Congress argued that they didn’t want to run up the nation’s credit card bill. Adopting a posture of fiscal rectitude, they said that if Congress was going to raise the debt ceiling, it ought to attach a measure that would reduce spending elsewhere.
It’s a faulty analogy. Congress has already run up the credit card bill by voting for past budgets. Opposing a higher debt ceiling is the opposite of fiscal rectitude: It is refusing to pay the debts it has already incurred.
House Speaker John Boehner had driven himself down a blind alley — rather, he had allowed tea party conservatives to do so through a strategy of fiscal blackmail. That strategy shut down the government last fall and promised once again to shatter the full faith and credit of the United States by refusing to honor the nation’s debts.
After the partial government shutdown proved damaging to Republicans in the eyes of the voters, Boehner realized he had to back away from fiscal brinkmanship, and so he brought forward a bill Tuesday that was called a “clean” debt ceiling bill, meaning it had no add-ons extracting blood from the Democrats. Many Republicans were indignant. Only 28 Republicans joined all but two Democrats in approving the bill raising the debt ceiling.
Republicans tend to personalize these issues. “When you give Nancy Pelosi exactly the votes she wants,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, of Kansas, “she’s going to be happy to take it.”
House members moaned that because President Obama had refused to negotiate on the debt ceiling, they had lost a great opportunity to take action to reduce the deficit. In fact, Obama’s refusal to submit to their blackmail on the debt ceiling is exactly what has enabled Congress to extricate itself from the grip of the tea party and to conduct the nation’s business responsibly and in a timely fashion.
In bemoaning Obama’s refusal to entertain the Republicans’ deficit-slashing budget demands, the Republicans also fail to acknowledge that the nation’s annual deficits have plunged by half during Obama’s tenure from the high point they hit during the Great Recession.
Tea party groups and other conservative advocacy groups are grumbling about Boehner’s speakership, unhappy that he has capitulated to Obama and the Democrats in Congress. Other more establishment-oriented Republicans had become leery of the reckless strategy of the tea party, which in threatening default and shutting down the government had created a dangerous atmosphere of uncertainty, with the potential of inflicting serious harm on the economy. It is not lost on Boehner that the confrontations provoked by the radical right also threatened the standing of the Republican Party in the eyes of the voters.
Other Republicans are plotting their futures with an eye to the voters. Rep. Paul Ryan, the vice presidential candidate in 2012, may be presumed to have presidential ambitions. Thus, he voted for the budget agreement that avoided further budget confrontations earlier this year, though the radical right opposed it.
This time, however, Ryan voted against the debt ceiling bill, no doubt with an eye to the right-wing activists who continue to wield significant influence. If he wants money from the Koch brothers, he can’t go all moderate on them.
With Congress refraining from inflicting new damage on the economy, the moderately optimistic prognostications of the new chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, may prove to be justified. Her moderate optimism allowed her to say to a House committee Tuesday that the Fed was prepared to ease off on its stimulus program of bond buying, unless the economy took a negative turn.
The recovery has been slow, and unemployment remains high, especially for the long-term unemployed, partly because of the failure of Congress to take more aggressive action. But in freeing Congress from the throttling grip of the tea party right, Boehner also spared the American people further unnecessary punishment.
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