The Battle to Raise the Debt Limit Begins

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 11th, 2011

Like Sumter, the Budget Compromise is only the Beginning

The next big congressional battle will be over the debt ceiling.  Which will set the stage for entitlement reform.  And being that this is the sesquicentennial of the opening shot of the Civil War, how about a little Civil War analogy?  About 150 years ago today General Beauregard ordered his canon to open fire on Fort Sumter.  The Union surrendered the fort.  There were about 10 casualties.

The first major land battle of the Civil War was the First Battle of Bull Run (aka, the First Battle of Manassas).  The military then still used Napoleonic tactics.  Armies formed in line, fired and advanced with bayonets amidst cannon fire, drums and regimental colors.  It was quite the spectacle.  The good people of Washington DC planned to make a picnic of it.  They would watch a couple of musket volleys and charges, see one army retire from the field of battle and then go home.  The battle did not progress quite that way.

Though we were still using Napoleonic tactics, we were not using Napoleonic smooth bore muskets any longer.  The effective range of the new rifled muskets was almost three times that of the smooth bores.  So as these men marched to close ranks with the enemy with their bayonets at the ready, the enemy fired accurate volleys into their lines.  The picnickers were shocked by the carnage.   When the Union Army was driven from the field of battle, the roads back to Washington were jammed with picnickers and soldiers alike fleeing for their lives.  There were just under 5,000 total casualties.  A pall hung over the nation.  No one expected the war to be this bad.  Then, about 9 months later, the Battle of Shiloh (aka, the Battle of Pittsburg Landing) saw just over 23,000 total casualties in two days of fighting.  Three months later, the Battle of Antietam (aka, the Battle of Sharpsburg) saw just over 22,000 casualties in a single day of fighting.  About a year later the Battle of Gettysburg saw close to 50,000 in total casualties over three days.

Now comparing political debates with Civil War battles dishonors those who fought those battles.  But because it’s the sesquicentennial, I will do so just for history’s sake.  Besides, politicians like to use war metaphors all of the time.  Even those opposed to the military.  The budget deal recently passed is like the Battle of Fort Sumter.  The battle over the debt ceiling will be like the Battle of Shiloh.  And entitlement reform will be like the three days of Gettysburg.  In other words, though they act like they just went to hell and back over this budget compromise, they ain’t seen nothing yet.

You Fix a Spending Problem by Spending Less, not More

House Speaker John Boehner pulled off a miracle of compromise.  Or some are saying.  While others are saying he caved (see John Boehner’s real tea party test by Chris Cillizza posted 4/11/2011 on The Washington Post).

House Speaker John Boehner is being widely credited as having emerged victorious from last week’s budget showdown — receiving kudos for extracting nearly $40 billion in budget cuts and uniting a fractious tea party behind the compromise bill.

But, the real test of Boehner’s abilities as a party leader will come next month when Congress begins debate on raising the federal debt ceiling.

Because of a fractious Republican Party.  The Tea Party wants serious cuts.  Because that’s why they got elected.  Meanwhile, the old guard doesn’t.  They may disagree with the liberals in theory but they want to be part of the same Washington establishment.  The liberals have the best parties.  With the best celebrities.  And the old guard wants to enjoy that life.

On this issue, at least, the American people side with the Tea Party.

In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last week, just 16 percent of people said the government should raise the ceiling while 46 percent opposed the idea and 38 percent said they didn’t know enough about it to offer an opinion.

Probing deeper, just 32 percent agreed with the statement that the debt limit increase was necessary to avoid the country being “unable to pay the nation’s bills” while 62 percent said that [they] agreed with the statement that such a vote would “make it harder to get the government’s financiaol [sic] house in order”.

Some may not understand the intricacies of the federal budget.  But they do seem to know that when you have a spending problem, you don’t solve it by asking the credit card companies to raise your credit limit.  People know that you fix a spending problem by spending less.  Not more.

But, judging from the concessions people like Rubio have laid out for a deal to be done — tax reform, regulatory reform, a balanced-budget amendment and entitlement reform — it’s hard to imagine the White House being able to give enough to make that sort of compromise possible.

And, all of that means that the burden will presumably be on Boehner to cut a deal that can garner 218 votes in the House while also avoiding a potential filibuster in the Senate from the likes of Rubio or South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint.

President Obama is a tax and spend liberal.  He’s not going to cede any ground on big cuts.  So Boehner will have to see how little in cuts the Tea Party will accept to vote to increase the debt ceiling.  And that will be a tough sell.  Because they want meaningful cuts.  But that’s something a tax and spend liberal just can’t do.

So as the nation is jubilant over the budget compromise that kept the federal government open, a longer, more bitter and far more partisan battle awaits them.  Which means the sides will entrench.  They will refuse to give ground.  And the compromise we’ll probably get will be similar to the many ones reached over slavery.  Which made the ultimate day of reckoning on that issue far more costly than anyone had ever imagined.

A History of Kicking the can down the Road

With sesquicentennial fever in the air, a 4th grade teacher tries to bring to life the issue that caused the nation to go to war (see Va. teacher holds mock slave auction by Kevin Sieff posted 4/33/2011 on The Washington Post).

Trying to bring a Civil War history lesson to life, [a] teacher…turned her fourth grade Norfolk classroom into a slave auction: She ordered black and mixed race students to one side of the classroom. Then, the white students took turns buying them…

Sewells Point’s fourth grade class is about 40 percent black and 40 percent white.

Though an interesting experiment, she unfortunately made it purely a racial issue.  Which is historically wrong.  There were a lot of whites in the south.  But only a few of them owned the big plantations where the majority of slavery existed.  She should have had only a few of the white children buying slaves.  And she should have identified them as the rich planter elite.  Who was also the driving force behind southern politics.  The other whites should have been identified as poor southerners working on small family farms without any slaves.

Then she could have pointed to the planter elite and said their wealth and political power depended on slavery.  Because all that cotton wasn’t going to pick itself.  Which is why they cited the North’s hostile attitude toward the institution of slavery in their secession documents.  They told everyone else it was about states’ rights.  But it wasn’t.  For the planter elite didn’t respect states’ rights in the North.  The North didn’t want to return fugitive slaves.  So the planter elite demanded the federal government pass the Fugitive Slave Act to override states’ rights in the North.  And force them to return their slaves. 

The debate over slavery was always controversial.  The Southern economy was entrenched in it.  The only way they’d join the Union was with their slaves.  So the issue was tabled for 20 years.  The Founding Fathers hoped the institution would just go away.  And it might have.  If it hadn’t been for Eli Whitney‘s cotton gin.  Because of the amount of cotton it could process, the southern plantations grew.  As did the number of slaves.  And the problem just continued to grow.  The cost to reimburse the plantation owners for the slaves they purchased legally grew too great to even consider.  The North didn’t want to pay that cost.  Slavery was a Southern problem.  And the slave population grew so large that no one wanted to address a post-slavery biracial society.  Because there were none then.  But there were slave uprisings.  And the South feared that a freed slave may try to exact a little revenge on their former master.  So the problem was kicked down the road for someone else to solve.  Until it couldn’t be kicked anymore.

This is where we are in our budget debate.  We’ve kicked that can down the road so many times that federal spending has grown out of control.  Now we’re entering European sovereign debt crisis territory.  And we’ve seen what has happened over there.  It’s a little different over here, though.  Germany and the other financially strong members of the European Union can bail out a Greece, an Ireland, a Portugal, etc.  But who is going to bail out the world’s largest economy?  Don’t spend too much time on that question.  Because there isn’t anyone big enough to bail us out.

Unfortunately, you win Elections with Spending, not with Spending Cuts

History often shows us that the longer we wait to address a problem, the harder and more costly it is to fix that problem.  And yet here we are.  With far too many people in Washington willing to just keep kicking that can down the road.

Interestingly, two who support raising the debt ceiling now were dead set against it at an earlier time.  When George W. Bush was in the White House.  Of course, then Senator Barack Obama was playing pure partisan politics and attacked George W. Bush on everything.  He regrets that vote now.  Because his hypocrisy makes him look partisan and naïve.  Harry Reid also had a hypocritical partisan position on this issue.  Bush spent irresponsibly and it was wrong to raise the debt ceiling.  Obama has spent even more in less time.  But now raising the debt ceiling is the right thing to do.  Go figure.

That recent budget compromise?  It was but a minor skirmish in a long war to come.  And though there was a lot of nasty political rhetoric, the battles to come won’t be as nice.  The Republicans will try to make meaningful cuts.  And Democrats will say that they just want to kill women, children and the elderly.  Knowing full well that the cuts being requested by the Republicans are necessary.  But you don’t win elections with cuts.  You win them by spending money.  So they will resist those cuts.  And try their damnedest to kick this can down the road.

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