Roy Green: U.S. debt ceiling – partisan politics vs. pragmatic common sense


“Washington is like a log floating down a river with 60,000 ants onboard. Each ant thinks it is steering.” A quote read long ago and thanks to political gamesmanship at the highest of levels, one not easily forgotten.

As July wound down toward an August 2 deadline, dire warnings thundered from Democrats and Republicans concerning raising of the U.S. debt ceiling.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner implored Congress to increase the nation’s borrowing limit “to protect the full faith and credit of the United States and avoid catastrophic economic consequences for all.”

By May 16, total United States debt had crept to within $25 million of the $14.294 trillion Congressional legal limit Washington was permitted to borrow.

Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s would within weeks warn of a one-in-two chance of a reduction of the U.S. AAA credit rating if a debt ceiling agreement wasn’t reached soon. Standard & Poor’s went further. A Washington agreement might still be met with a rating reduction if debt issues were to resurface in the short term.

Short-term planning is arguably the only planning taking place in D.C. these days. There is, after all, an election campaign underway with nothing less than residency at the White House at stake.

A wounded President, and Barack Obama certainly is that on the critical economic performance and job creation front, is a political target Republicans will not want to provide even minimal cover for. Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell’s suggestion that Obama’s powers be amended to allow the President to raise the debt ceiling in three increments while simultaneously delivering reductions in spending through 2012 is a case in point.

The most vocal opposition to Republican McConnell’s proposal came from within his own ranks.

Newly elected Tea Party wing members of Congress have shown little inclination to sign on to views of the GOP’s old guard leadership. Michele Bachmann, chair of the House Tea Party caucus and an increasingly popular Republican presidential hopeful, countered McConnell’s initiative, stating, “President Obama is holding the full faith and credit of the United States hostage so he can continue his spending spree.”

A verbal shot fired across the enemy’s metaphoric bow to be sure, but tinged with a warning of potential mutiny.

Obama faced his own Fletcher Christian scenarios. Not all Democratic members of Congress sided with their President and were hardly shy to publicly distance themselves from the White House.

In the ever-twisting world of presidential election campaign politics a serious, even critical issue for the nation’s wellbeing morphed into a battle of confused and confusing public relations campaigning.

House Speaker John Boehner felt the sting of internal rebuke perhaps most keenly. It must have been utterly embarrassing for Boehner, a veteran and savvy Republican Congressman, to have been both shut down and up by rookie Tea Party caucus members. Boehner had been working on a proposal with the President which would have included $4 trillion in reduced deficit spending, while generating new tax revenues of $1 trillion. The Tea Party response was to publicly nix any such deal, leaving the Speaker as well as his leadership on shaky ground.

Republicans were also receiving no blank cheque from the American electorate. At what point would the political grappling begin to backfire on the GOP? A July 14 Quinnipiac poll saw voters by a 48 to 34 per cent margin suggest blame for not reaching a debt ceiling agreement would not be placed at the door of the Oval Office, but rather rest with Republicans and inevitably their eventual 2012 presidential candidate.

Considering the party, while not exactly leaderless, has been unable to excite voters with its lineup of Oval Office suitors, the Quinnipiac numbers would have had to serve as a reminder of how in 1995, the issue of a government shutdown saw Americans assign blame to Republicans, particularly then Speaker Newt Gingrich, resulting in the re-election of then-President Bill Clinton.

Cautions though have been issued to comparing the events of 2011 with those of 1995. Much has changed in the area of media diversification. The Internet, influential bloggers and the emergence of cable news networks make messaging far more complex and the voter more difficult to influence.

The increase of sheer numbers of media is clearly not lost on Washington. President Obama held two heavily covered news conferences the week of July 11, focusing on a July 19 Republican led Congressional vote to raise the debt ceiling, tying it to a balanced-budget amendment.

Not willing to face non-stop reminders on that vote and no doubt with an eye on Bachmann and her Tea Party caucus, Boehner addressed the media, offering, “Let’s get through that vote and then we’ll make decisions about what will come after it.”

Republicans and Democrats in Washington have become obsessed with the notion of victory at the polls. Philosophical battle lines have been clearly drawn and the effects of the United States not raising its debt ceiling by the August 2 deadline have at least perceptually taken a back seat to the warring between political parties.

Were perception to become reality and intransigence to leave the world’s largest economy unable to pay its bills and meet its internal financial obligations while simultaneously suffering a downgrading of its AAA credit rating (now or again in the near future) would the result be a global financial crisis dwarfing that of 2008? Many respected voices in the financial world warn of just such an outcome.

At this writing, agreement between Republicans and Democrats remained elusive, although the fundamentals of the McConnell proposal would appear the most likely eventual scenario.

Americans have a right to be furious at those they sent to Washington to pragmatically conduct the affairs of the nation. The United States financial woes are sufficiently deep to keep each member of Congress gainfully occupied in a non-partisan effort to return the nation’s economic fortunes to first stability, then prosperity.

Unkind and graphic as it is, a quote by comedic actor W.C. Fields should be read by them all. “It is time to take the bull by the tail and face the situation.”

Roy Green is a contributor to the National Post and the host of the Roy Green Show, a national program weekends on the Corus radio network.