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The Deadline Gambit

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Last week Vice President Joe Biden’s debt ceiling talks stopped when the opposition party representatives, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), walked out in a dispute over the idea of raising taxes. Cantor left first. Somehow he told his colleagues what he was going to do but did not tell the Speaker of the House, if we are to believe that. Kyl couldn’t do much else but recite the GOP “job killing” mantra and participate in the display. It is much easier to strike a pose than to negotiate a deal, anyway.

empty board roomBefore his walkout on Thursday morning, Cantor told The Wall Street Journal, “As it stands, the Democrats continue to insist that any deal must include tax increases.” Cantor said in a statement, “Regardless of the progress that has been made, the tax issue must be resolved before discussions can continue.” The tax increase idea means the elimination of Bush era tax breaks to which the Republicans are married. It does not mean tax increases for individual US taxpayers, but that is just GOP semantics.

During the Biden debt ceiling talks, Democrats argued that Republicans should at least join them in eliminating corporate tax breaks for chief executives with private jets. Republicans also rejected consideration of eliminating even temporary tax breaks, such as those for NASCAR tracks and Puerto Rican rum. As a result, a new Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll found that more people say they would blame Republicans in Congress than President Obama if the debt-ceiling talks broke down.

Politicians deal in factoids, not facts. They live and breathe strategic ambiguities so that blocs of voters like the tea party can panic and overreact. For example, “It’s time to force our elected officials to stop spending cold turkey, and we can start by making sure they do not raise the debt ceiling,” announces Rep. Michele Bachmann’s website. Never mind the fact that such a plan cannot be done.

Even one of her staunch supporters William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, says such an idea is not only silly but irresponsible. “I’ve seen no plausible plan that would enable us to go “cold turkey” (to use her term) fast enough or dramatically enough that we could reduce the deficit to zero in a few months — which is what would be required if Congress were not to authorize an increase in the debt ceiling.”

Capitol buildingHere is a quick review of some of the facts being ignored. For one thing, the government officially hit the federal debt limit on Monday, May 16. That forced the Treasury Department to make moves to avoid a default, like reducing government investments in two federal employee pension funds. For another thing, it is the Treasury Department that set an August 2 deadline to raise the country’s $14.3 trillion debt limit before the country risks defaulting on its debt obligations. For yet another thing still, although they don’t admit it, every time Congress votes for a spending hike or a tax cut, lawmakers are agreeing to raise the debt ceiling whether they say so or not.

“Congress has already passed and the president has already signed legislation that increases spending or decreases revenues. Those decisions have already been made,” said Susan Irving, director for federal budget issues at the Government Accountability Office. So arguing over the debt ceiling is like arguing over whether to pay the bills the country has already incurred. This is the United States. Its obligations will be paid. That is why they are called obligations.

The Treasury Department says, “Since 1960, Congress has acted 78 separate times to permanently raise, temporarily extend, or revise the definition of the debt limit; 49 times under Republican presidents and 29 times under Democratic presidents. In the coming weeks, Congress must act to increase the debt limit. Congressional leaders in both parties have recognized that this is necessary.”

Just for the record, “Between 1980 and 1990, the debt more than tripled,” the Treasury reports. “The debt shrank briefly after the end of the Cold War, but by the end of FY2008, the gross national debt had reached $10.3 trillion, about 10 times its 1980 level.”

Remember the Ryan budget passed by the Republican House majority? The Congressional Budget Office and House Budget Committee estimates that “the spending included in the House Republican Budget Resolution would necessitate a nearly $2 trillion increase in the debt limit by the end of FY2012. Moreover, it would require trillions of dollars in additional debt limit increases beyond that amount for the next several decades.” But these are only government estimates, not facts.

As to the Cantor walkout the morning after his boss met privately with the president, it would be underestimating the speaker to believe he did not know what his Number 1 was goingchess board to do. It would be more characteristic of Boehner to believe that he said, “Eric, you can go, now.” It’s a chess move where you sacrifice a Bishop to a Queen.

“In the Bush years the Republicans said that tax cuts will produce jobs. They didn’t. They produced a deficit,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said. “Leader Cantor can’t handle the truth when it comes to these tax subsidies for big oil, for corporations sending jobs overseas, for giving tax breaks to the wealthiest people in our country while they’re asking seniors to pay more for less, as they abolish Medicare,” Pelosi said.

Congress and the Treasury seem to have a problem with the concept of a deadline. Showmanship seems to be paramount for the GOP. But it is the absence of any sense of urgency that gives the deadline gambit away. The Biden talks may be “in abeyance” after the Republicans pulled out, but Boehner’s office says he’s leaving town for an 11-day House recess, swaggering all the way to the golf course.

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About Tommy Mack

Tommy Mack began his career in broadcasting and is a US Army graduate of the Defense Information School. He worked in Army Public and Command Information and earned a BS in Liberal Studies from the State University of New York, Albany. A marketing communications executive, Tommy became a business management consultant for a major international consulting company and its affiliates before establishing Tommy Mack Organization, a business consulting practice specializing in organization and communications management. A professional writer and blogger, he writes about politics, business, and culture.
  • Baronius

    “every time Congress votes for a spending hike or a tax cut, lawmakers are agreeing to raise the debt ceiling whether they say so or not”

    That’s factually wrong.

  • No, it’s not. I originally wrote “implicitly agree to raise . . .” and changed it. Perhaps that caused your confusion.


  • Baronius

    I can perhaps be forgiven for judging the sentence as it appeared rather than your earlier draft of it, especially in light of the fact that the sentence as it appeared is factually wrong.

  • Baronius

    Another point, one that I’ve been making on a lot of threads lately.

    It’s not an argument if you dismiss your opponent’s position without explanation. When you say that every tax cut implies increased debt, you’re skipping over the possibility that a tax rate cut could increase revenue. I can’t remember offhand which fallacy that is, but it’s one of the old ones.

  • Leroy

    With falling tax revenues we are obviously beyond the point where Laffer theory would apply.

  • The tax issues that are coming up in these talks involve abolishing questionable tax breaks, not raising rates. Calling the common-sense revocation of unjustifiable tax breaks and loopholes “tax hikes” is pernicious rhetoric.

    And not all rate increases and decreases are the same anyway. If you always got increased revenue from tax cuts, then we should reduce taxes to near zero and get near-infinite revenue. Since that is obviously Alice in Wonderland stuff, even stubborn supply-siders have to concede that there is a flex point beyond which tax cuts make the deficit go up. Hint: we reached that point in 2003.

    Grover Norquist has a lot to answer for.

  • The rhetoric is pernicious, alright. It advocates the financial destruction of the United States. It is ignorant and stupid because it is based solely on emotional appeal as the dominant factor of GOP/teaparty cheerleading. It reminds me of the Miller Light ads “Tastes Great/Less Filling,” except those ads were not dangerous.

    House Representatives Eric Cantor and Michele Bachmann suffer delusions of grandeur brought on by having to believe their own pernicious nonsense. Cantor seems to believe that he will succeed Boehner as Speaker of the House. Bachmann seems to believe that she will succeed Obama as President of the United States.

    They advocate that the United States should default on its worldwide obligations. That alone should be sufficient to disqualify them from achieving higher office. In fact it should qualify them for recall if not impeachment. The financial destruction of the nation that these Republicans seek is beyond what any terrorist could hope to achieve.


  • Baronius

    Tommy, I can’t find any proof that Cantor or Bachmann “advocate that the United States should default on its worldwide obligations”. That’s a pretty serious statement. Could you back it up?

  • It is a very serious statement. I do not make it lightly, either. The consequence of not raising the debt ceiling is default on obligations the US has in the world market. Look at Bachmann’s website.


  • Baronius

    That site doesn’t say anything about defaulting.

  • Baronius

    To be clear: I don’t see how we could cut enough to keep from defaulting; nor do you or Bill Kristol. That doesn’t give you the right to say that she’s advocating for defaulting on our debt, though, because she’s not. She apparently thinks we can cut our way to zero.

  • Why harp on that one assertion at the expense of the larger argument, Mr. B? This is hair-splitting.

    The right wing of the GOP is advocating actions that most reasonable people say will result in default. Is that a reasonable enough rephrasing? One would think you’re more interested in abstract debates than discussing real issues.

  • Baronius

    Handy – It looks like one person on the right wing (who isn’t part of the negotiation) is advocating actions that most responsible et cetera. There’s no evidence presented that Cantor or Kyl is doing that. There’s no evidence suggesting that this is more than a negotiating tactic. Which leads to the question, what evidence is presented in this article? There is some supposition on Tommy’s part, some history about the debt limit, and more supposition on Tommy’s part. If I can’t criticize an article and thread rich with misstatements and poor on analysis, this site might as well change its name to Blog.

  • Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says that if the ceiling isn’t raised by Aug. 2, the government could begin defaulting on some of its obligations, triggering a financial crisis. OK?

    As to Bachmann in particular, she has also claimed that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly” to end slavery, but facts don’t interest her. That conjecture is stupidity. Politicizing a function of government to make a headline is something the GOP/teaparty regularly does with flagrant disregard for consequences. It is not alright. It is bad for business and bad for the country. If that is a “negotiating tactic,” it is a treacherous one.

    What is worse is that the Republican Party leadership is enabling such stupidity. Its inept Budget Resolution is an example because in order for it to go into effect requires raising the debt ceiling that its idiot savants oppose. By the way, the rest of the world is watching and so are world markets. They could not care less about Medicare. They care about the United States making good on its obligations.

    I welcome criticism and as such, the burden of demonstrating evidence to the contrary of my presented case is on the critic. Show me that I am wrong.


  • My point, Baronius, is that here as elsewhere you hammer on a single debating point, without expressing an opinion about the larger or more central issue at hand. It’s a slippery style.

    The GOP, Cantor and Kyl included, are playing with fire. The libertarians say the alarmist predictions are overblown. How do they know? Why take the risk?

  • Baronius

    Handy, two points.

    First off, I hate posting the exact same thing over and over. It’s stupid. I try to at least address the particular article or thread in question, rather than post a rant that I could have written a week ago. There’s enough of that online.

    Secondly, there are too many broad generalizations coming from both sides of the aisle. Tommy wrote a bad article here, and right in the center of it is a statement that, if taken at face value, would lead to a gross misunderstanding of the debt ceiling, an analysis of which I assume was the whole point of the article. Then he follows it up with a mischaracterization of Bachmann’s and Cantor’s position. I hate that stuff, even when my side does it (even when *I* do it – and I expect to be called on it when I slip up).

    Thirdly, out of two points, I had a small lunch and I’m kind of hungry and irritated, and it bugs me to no end that after calling out Tommy on two errors he’s striking the “prove me wrong” pose.

  • Nancy Pelosi, of all people, put this as succinctly and non-partisan-ly [!] as anyone [I’m paraphrasing]:

    “The debt ceiling is not about giving us permission to spend more in the future; it’s about continuing to meet the obligations we have already incurred.”

    That’s why it would roil world finance for us to even flirt with bumping our heads on the limit. US Treasury securities are still the world’s preferred investment vehicle — allowing us to borrow at very low interest — but that could change quickly if the debt ceiling limit were reached or even nearly reached.

    The debt ceiling and future federal budgets should be two separate discussions. The GOP’s hardball tactics in combining the two are reckless and despicable and I hope they choke on them.

  • “The debt ceiling and future federal budgets should be two separate discussions.” The president, the speaker and the senate leaders McConnell and Reid understand that and will separate them.

    As to criticism, those blue words are not there because I like the way the look. As a critic, Baronius has made the point that he does not like my article. That is just fine. However, nothing has been offered to refute anything I have written and attributed with references links to sources such as the Treasury Department, New York Times, Washington Post or Weekly Standard. I am a professional journalist. That is what we do.

    To pose as a critic, one must expect to be asked to substantiate ones claims. If I made “two errors,” what are they? I cannot help with others critical reading skills. I expect people to object. But refutations based solely on the unsubstantiated opinion “Tommy wrote a bad article here” suffer to make a point such as “two separate discussions” does.


  • A new wrinkle, noted tonight by Keith Olbermann interviewing HuffPost’s Ryan Grim:

    “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law… shall not be questioned,” reads the 14th Amendment.

    By declaring the debt ceiling unconstitutional, the White House could continue to meet its financial obligations, leaving Tea Party-backed Republicans in the difficult position of arguing against the plain wording of the Constitution.

    And from Bruce Bartlett, who has joined David Frum in the ‘conservatives who dare to call Tea Party rhetoric nutty because it is’ club:

    In the event that congressional irresponsibility makes default impossible to avoid, he should order the secretary of the Treasury to simply disregard the debt limit and sell whatever securities are necessary to raise cash to pay the nation’s debts.

    They are protected by the full faith and credit of the United States and preventing default is no less justified than using American military power to protect against an armed invasion without a congressional declaration of war.

  • Clavos

    Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says that if the ceiling isn’t raised by Aug. 2, the government could begin defaulting on some of its obligations, triggering a financial crisis. OK?

    Which is:

    Politicizing a function of government to make a headline…


    Isn’t there something in Shakespeare about a petard?

  • “For ’tis the sport to have the enginer
    Hoist with his own petar”
    Hamlet, Act III, Scene iv

    Context: Claudius, that happy-go-lucky, brother-murderin’, sister-in-law-marryin’ King of Denmark, has sent his inconveniently suspicious nephew slash stepson Hamlet to England in the company of his old schoolfriends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The hapless duo carry a sealed dispatch which, unknown to them but known to Hamlet (after he surreptitiously opens it), orders the English to execute Hamlet for treason. Not to be outdone, our hero alters the letter to make it appear that Rosie and Guilders are for the chop instead.

    So in its original usage, the expression means specifically to use your enemy’s own weapons against him, rather than just to generally have your strategy backfire on you.

  • Geithner is joined in his warning by a great many, and probably most, economists and financial executives [in fact, almost anyone with knowledge of finance who is not a fire-breathing Tea Party true believer].

    So if he is stating a fact [or at least a belief widely held by numerous experts], how is that “politicizing”? Politicizing is in the eye of the beholder I guess.

  • Timothy Geithner is a career non-elected public servant and the current Secretary of the Treasury. It is a Cabinet post like General Eric Shinseki being the Secretary of Veterans Affairs or Janet Napolitano being the Secretary of Homeland Security. The cabinet itself is established in Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution. Its role is to advise the President on any subject relating to the duties of each member’s respective office. All are approved by the Senate. It is quite a stretch to suggest that Department Secretaries can politicize anything.


  • Leroy

    After the founders won the revolutionary war there was considerable sentiment to default on the loans that the US had received during the war (which was customary at the time), but Alexander Hamilton insisted that the new republic pay off all it´s debts in full, no matter what it took or how long, and he established the economic system that would do it. It is that policy which has buttressed us for over 200 years.

    We´re not going to default on anything. Maybe we´ll re-negotiate, maybe we´ll borrow, but we´ll not default.

  • Cannonshop

    The 14th Amendment doesn’t allow for default, defaulting could result in a constitutional crisis, and would probably be grounds for criminal charges of the officials who do so.

    Prior to the current addtional two wars we’re now involved in, this argument was going on on Capital Hill, interestingly enough, those two additional wars may well catalyze raising the debt-ceiling, since y’know, war ain’t cheap even if you’re only using multimillion dollar drones to fight it.

    (and, ‘course, it’s not declared and congress wasn’t even lied to before it kicked off… which is worse, going to war with half-assed explanations and inaccurate cassus belli, or going to war with NO explanations or cassus belli? Probably something for the historians to sort out in a decade or two… is post-facto rationalization equal to seeking the advice and consent of the Congress before taking action or not?)

    fact is, spinelessness is a common trait of the GOP leadership, not to exclude funding the new wars (Libya and Yemen) in the middle of a fight over raising the Debt Ceiling after the largest increase in cost-to-revenue ratio since WWII and a massive national debt at home.

    meanwhile, even the Pentagon sees the need to cut costs, even while Congress and the President rack up new debt.

  • Baronius

    “The 14th Amendment doesn’t allow for default, defaulting could result in a constitutional crisis, and would probably be grounds for criminal charges of the officials who do so.”

    I wouldn’t bet on that interpretation of the 14th Amendment, and there’s no way that officials would be held criminally liable. That’s just impossible.

  • Republicans floated the idea of rewriting the 14th Amendment last year. Top Republicans Senator Lindsey Graham (SC), Senator Jon Kyl (AZ), and Senator Mitch McConnell (KY) advocated eliminating the “birthright clause” and demonstrated their antithesis to the Constitutional Amendment.

    Senator Graham argued that the Fourteenth Amendment no longer serves the purpose it was designed to address. Senate Minority Whip Kyl supported hearings on repealing the Fourteenth Amendment. Senator McConnell said Congress should “reconsider the Fourteenth Amendment.”

    But there isn’t anything to interpret in Section 4: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned.” They took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution whether they like it or not.


  • If you want an argument, try this one. The debt ceiling itself is unconstitutional, under the 14th Amendment Section 4. This could be read to invalidate any congressional actions, such as the debt ceiling, that call the security of our debt into question.


  • Tommy I definitely agree with you!