"It's never been easy for House Republicans to raise the debt limit." With that opening sentence, Jake Sherman and Steven Sloan of Politico provided air cover for the GOP's unprecedented—and dangerously irresponsible—debt ceiling hostage-taking. After all, Republicans in both houses of Congress had no problem raising the debt limit until Democrat Barack Obama became president.
Back in March, rumors first began to swirl that House Republicans might refuse to increase the nation's borrowing authority unless it was accompanied by tax reform. (As you'll recall, "tax reform" in Republican parlance means slashing individual and corporate tax rates while supposedly closing always unnamed loopholes to avoid draining the U.S. Treasury.) Now, Politico reports, Speaker Boehner and his GOP allies are moving towards making that "revenue-neutral" reform (that is, making no impact on the national debt) a condition of boosting the debt ceiling this fall:
It's never been easy for House Republicans to raise the debt limit. [...]
Now, momentum is building to tie a rewrite of the Tax Code to hiking the debt cap, which will need to be raised by the fall because the limit will technically be hit this month. Top lawmakers and aides on the House Ways and Means Committee have quietly begun mulling over and crafting mechanisms that would attempt to "commit Washington" to tax reform over the next five months, several sources involved with the planning say.
One framework that has gained significant traction -- and has been ricocheting around K Street and Capitol Hill -- would directly wed increases in the debt ceiling to progress in tax reform.
Completely missing in Politico's "analysis" is any mention of just how radical this extortion truly is. After all, the debt ceiling has been raised 40 times since 1980. And not until Barack Obama took the oath of office did one party have both the intent and the votes
to trigger a sovereign default by the United States and with it a global financial catastrophe.
Read more about the history of the GOP raising the debt ceiling below the fold.
Key to understanding the current fiscal brinksmanship in Washington is the Republican pretense that history began on January 20, 2009. As the new GOP House Majority's default threat escalated in the spring and summer of 2011, Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling claimed that for Republicans raising the debt ceiling is "contrary to our DNA," Majority Leader Cantor pleaded for understanding:
"I don't think the White House understands is how difficult it is for fiscal conservatives to say they're going to vote for a debt ceiling increase."
That, of course, is complete nonsense. The debt ceiling was routinely raised 40 times since 1980, including 17 times under Ronald Reagan (who tripled the national debt) and another seven under President George W. Bush (who nearly doubled it again). As it turns out, the current GOP leadership team including Eric Cantor voted a combined 19 times to bump the debt limit $4 trillion during Bush's tenure. (That vote tally included a "clean" debt ceiling increase in 2004, backed by 98 current House Republicans and 31 sitting GOP senators.)
Of course, they had to. After all, the two unfunded wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the budget-busting Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 (the first war-time tax cut in modern U.S. history) and the Medicare prescription drug program drained the U.S. Treasury and doubled the national debt by 2009. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded two years ago, the Bush tax cuts accounted for half of the deficits during his tenure, and if made fully permanent, over the next decade would have cost the U.S. Treasury more than Iraq, Afghanistan, the recession, TARP and the stimulus—combined. And Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Eric Cantor voted for all of it.
When President Obama paid their ransom in the form of the August 2011 Budget Control Act overwhelming supported by Congressional Republicans, the GOP brass was thrilled with their successful extortion. Speaker Boehner, who has acknowledged that debt limit will have to be raised repeatedly in the years to come, declared "I got 98 percent of what I wanted. I'm pretty happy." For his part, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gloated over the BCA and pledged the GOP would be back again and again to take the U.S. economy hostage. As he explained on Aug. 2, 2011:
"I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting," he said. "Most of us didn't think that. What we did learn is this -- it's a hostage that's worth ransoming. And it focuses the Congress on something that must be done."
Of course, slashing the already rapidly falling annual budget deficit does not have to be done, or at least not now. (House GOP leaders admitted as much in March, when Speaker Boehner acknowledged "we have no immediate debt crisis" while Paul Ryan similarly conceded, "We do not have a debt crisis right now.") But what really must be done is raising the debt ceiling. We know this, because the Republicans' best and brightest told us so.
From the moment they assumed the House majority in 2011 Republicans leaders admitted as much. The United States has never defaulted on its obligations and had never put its full faith and credit in jeopardy (especially by choice). Nevertheless, GOP leaders promised to do just that unless their demands for draconian spending cuts were met. While Paul Ryan warned that "you can't not raise the debt ceiling," the new Speaker John Boehner agreed such a failure would produce "a financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy." In January 2011, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham nevertheless promised his party would do the unprecedented—and previously unthinkable:
"Let me tell you what's involved if we don't lift the debt ceiling: financial collapse and calamity throughout the world. That's not lost upon me. But we've done this 93 times. And if we keep doing the same old thing, then that is insanity to the nth degree."
As it turns out, playing chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States is the real insanity. Meanwhile, pretending as Politico does that House Republicans have always been paragons of fiscal restraint is in no way journalism. Sherman and Sloan just needed to do a little homework or maybe place a call to Dick Cheney. After all, as the Republican vice president explained in 2002:
"Reagan proved that deficits don't matter."