I think a big problem with the politics of this debt ceiling fight is that the American people don’t know how incredibly stupid the concept of the debt ceiling really is. This is why the only real highlight from President Obama’s rather bizarre public address yesterday was, for me, that he finally started trying to explain to the American people that the debt ceiling isn’t about deciding whether or not to allow the country to spend more money. From Obama’s Speech:
Understand –- raising the debt ceiling does not allow Congress to spend more money. It simply gives our country the ability to pay the bills that Congress has already racked up. In the past, raising the debt ceiling was routine. Since the 1950s, Congress has always passed it, and every President has signed it. President Reagan did it 18 times. George W. Bush did it seven times. And we have to do it by next Tuesday, August 2nd, or else we won’t be able to pay all of our bills.
It is nice but sadly, too little, too late.
Congress already wrote the checks, spending the money and/or legally promising to fulfill the contracts through previous legislation. Not raising the debt ceiling means these existing laws will need to be broken. Refusing to borrow or raise taxes to fulfill these existing legal obligations will bring into question whether or not anyone can trust the United States Government to follow its own basic law, which could in itself be a violation of the 14th amendment of the Constitution.
A simply analogy is that Government has gone to a restaurant, has already ordered, received its meal and eaten half of it. Not raising the debt ceiling would be as if Congress, after eating most of the meal, decided to run out of the restaurant without paying the tab.
I think if people were to understand how completely stupid the debt ceiling is they would be even angrier about this to-do. The President could have used his bully pulpit to tell the people almost no other country has a debt ceiling.
When their legislatures approve a law requiring new spending they also inherently approve the borrowing needed to fulfill that law. It is only here in United States where it is possible for Congress to force the President into a criminal act. They can, in theory, pass a law legally requiring the executive to pay for something but once the check comes due, they can refuse to let him borrow the money needed to pay for it.
Obama could have told the American people it didn’t used to be this way and doesn’t need to be this way now. In the past, Congress raised the debt limit in the same bill that created the need to borrow more. So there is no need to have a debt ceiling at all. It could just be set once and for all.
Whether or not this would have made a difference is impossible to know, because Obama chose instead to try to use the debt ceiling nonsense to get the “Grand Bargain” on the deficit he has wanted for years.
It is unfortunate that as our whole political system comes unhinged due to this current fight, so little has been done to explain to regular people what a preposterous and unnecessary debate this really is.