COMMENTARY | The debt ceiling “debate,” “talks,” “negotiations,” or whatever one wishes to call the posture-filled political impasse that exists in Washington regarding the budget deficit-debt limit issue has brought out the worst in our political system. In a legislative system that used to run on the ability to reach compromise, even in the face of intense political differences, increased polarization in ideology over the last few decades, not to mention the pressures of intensified lobbying of special interests, among the 535 members of Congress have made getting business done in the legislature nearly impossible.
Even seasoned dealmakers like Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, are finding it more difficult. And where the general rule used to be: represent your constituents but do what is best for the nation, the rule now seems to be: vote your ideology, regardless of the consequences. This is nowhere more evident than in the voting bloc (read: block) that is the contingent of Republicans that call themselves members of the tea party movement.
Voted into office on an electorate backlash to the seemingly unchecked spending ethic of the previous decade and the Democrats’ perceived inability to do anything about an economy that refused to pull itself out of the worst recession since the Great Depression, tea party members and tea party backed conservatives were elected to Congress during the midterm elections in 2010. They immediately vowed to defund the recently passed Health Care Reform Act, never raise taxes, cut the federal fiscal budget as much as possible. Some vowed to reduce the federal government to a bare framework. Some were more specific, promising to repeal certain laws (such as the Health Care Act), dismantle government agencies (like the Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy), and either restructure or eliminate Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. Their attack on government spending, spearheaded by the outright hatred of the Health Care Reform Act, and insistence on true fiscal conservatism had resonated with the electorate. They were determined to be heard in Washington.
And they have been. Speaker of the House John Boehner, even before the 112th Congress convened, incorporated tea party tenets into the working Republican platform, delivered in a pledge a month before the newly elected Congressmen took office. In an unprecedented move, Speaker Boehner and the Republican leadership allowed a second rebuttal to the President’s State of the Union Address in the form of tea party Caucus leader Michele Bachmann’s off-center and misleading foray into catchphrases and unsubstantiated talking points.
And they held their ground. During the far-behind-schedule battle over the 2011 federal budget, they fought to keep spending down and refused to vote for the bill. It passed without them.
Using the same stonewalling tactics and voting almost as a single entity, the Tea Party Caucus established the same position in the negotiations concerning the debt ceiling, a limit imposed by Congress — a legal limit that denied the U. S. Treasury the ability to borrow money without Congress’ approval — meant to act as a warning against over-spending but a limit that had always been raised as a matter of course — until this debt ceiling was reached. Falling back on their campaign speeches and promises of no taxes and less government spending, the tea party, along with the Republican Party overall, decided to use the debt ceiling issue as leverage to get massive spending cuts in exchange for votes that would allow the government to borrow funds and pay its obligations.
But as many moderate Republicans, such as Speaker Boehner himself, attempted to negotiate, anything other than what the tea party contingent wanted has been derided and flat-out refused. Revenue increases of any kind have been negated (even the closing of corporate tax loopholes that only benefit the wealthy). Measures without a balanced budget amendment provision have been refused as wanting. Every plan offered, whether by Republican or Democrat, has been ridiculed as not doing enough to cut spending. And even though there has been some wavering among a few Tea Party Caucus members, some, like presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann, has refused to vote for any legislative measure that raises the debt ceiling.
At present, the House Tea Party Caucus contains at least 60 members, with several members of the House that also strongly lean toward their hard-lined ideology. Their voting bloc, bolstered by other Republican members who have signed anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist’s “no tax pledge,” even blocked the last budget reduction/debt limit plan suggested by Speaker Boehner until the plan was revamped to include provisions supported by the tea partyers.
That revamping, of course, made the revised legislation unpalatable to the Democratic-controlled Senate. Given that the Democrats plans have included $2.7 trillion to $4 trillion in spending cuts (with the “grand bargain” plan also including provisions for the decreased funding of Social Security and Medicare) and no “tax increases,” Republicans, for the most part, had scored a victory in the debt ceiling talks. However, only moderates would vote for the plans and the tea party-led group of hard-liners refused to agree on anything without a balanced budget provision. At the same time, the amount of spending cuts were also a point of contention — never being enough for the mostly newly elected Congressmen.
But with their hard line, the tea party has now pushed the U. S. government to the brink of government shutdown and default. Many among them, such as Bachmann, claim that a default would be good for the U. S., forcing the government to cut spending on unnecessary programs and services and downsize. She has stated that the government could then prioritize its payments, adding that the Obama administration was misleading the public with “scare tactics” by saying that the government might not be able to pay its debts and pay Social Security or military pensions.
But Bachmann — and the tea party — is wrong. The amount of tax revenue coming into the Treasury is far exceeded by the federal government’s obligations (obligations that were agreed upon when the 2011 federal budget passed in April). If the interest on the national debt is paid, it leaves little to pay the rest of the government’s bills. Choices would have to be made. And as the government continues to juggle without the ability to procure loans to pay its bills, and as revenues continue to fall behind the amounts due, sometime in the very near future, some bills, even after a government shutdown of nonessential services (which will most likely occur on August 3), will not get paid. Sooner or later, the government will default.
At the same time, the U. S. Treasury securities bond rating just might be down-graded from its AAA status to AA. Some have said that it wouldn’t matter that much, since the U. S. is the world’s leading economy and its currency is the world’s foremost reserve monetary supply. But it will matter in that interest rates will go up across the board for Americans, not to mention that the lower bond rating will increase the interest on loans to the federal government, increasing the deficit. It will also devalue the dollar, making it vulnerable to other world currencies. The world’s markets are already showing instability as the Washington continues to quibble over whether or not to raise the debt limit. Lending organizations are tightening their grip on their finances in case the government actually defaults. In the long run, this means less money for business loans, slowing job creation, and inhibiting economic growth — not only in the U. S. but worldwide.
So the tea party’s insistence on getting their way at any cost has already caused concern. An actual default will cause far more than concern. Stock markets will falter, if not crash. Economies will suffer, not the least of which will be the economy of the United States. Jobs will not be created. A government shutdown will affect millions of individuals and their social circles and micro-economies. The government will not be able to meet all of its obligations, ultimately endangering the most vulnerable among the American population due to stalls or nonpayments of entitlements — the elderly, the young, and the disabled.
It appears that it just might be time for the Republican Party to cut its more intransigent element loose. Carried into Washington on a wave of fiscal responsibility sentiment, the tea party has become a stonewalling bloc to anything with which they disagree. Compromise does not seem to be in the nature of the movement, as has been evidenced by votes cast in the 112th Congress and stances taken by their members and espoused by the more extreme, like their Caucus leader, Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Washington politics, like all political engines, runs on compromise and its working parts to eventually align to operate as a unit. The tea party, which considers itself a catalyst for change, has taken a considerably hard-line approach on most political matters, refusing to budge regardless of entreaties by even members of their own party. Strict adherence to ideology is not good governance; it is autocratic and restrictive. In the House of Representatives, the movement has become an unworking part within the engine of government, causing the rest of the government to either work at less than optimal capacity or become stalled.
And the tea party has now brought the government to the brink of shutdown, default, loss of financial good standing, and even a return to economic recession through the destabilization of interdependent American and world financial markets.
And when an engine part refuses to work with the rest of the engine, a good and conscientious steward of the engine would replace that part. That is what Republican moderates like John Boehner and the rest of America must do — work to replace the defective and obstructive part, or watch as the engine of government of the world’s foremost political and economic power comes to a grinding halt.