"Reagan proved," Vice President Dick Cheney famously said in 2002, "deficits don't matter." Not, that is, when a Republican is sitting in the White House. After all, Republicans were silent as the national debt tripled under Ronald Reagan and doubled again under George W. Bush. As it turns out, the same hypocrisy of the GOP's born-again deficit hawks extends to the U.S. debt ceiling as well. After voting seven times to raise the debt ceiling under Bush, Republicans are now promising to just say no to Democrat Barack Obama. And for their political posturing, they risk not only a shutdown of the federal government, but a global economic crisis as well.
In early 2011, the U.S. debt ceiling will have to be bumped up from it current $14.3 trillion level. But for the first time in the nation's history, the emboldened GOP leadership is threatening to block the needed increase and so trigger a default by the government of the United States.
That was the word from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Within hours of Tuesday's midterm voting, McConnell signaled the GOP would oppose boosting the debt ceiling needed to avoid a global economic panic unless there were "strings attached." Appearing on Meet the Press Sunday, South Carolina Senator Jim Demint made clear what strings he had in mind. Asked if he'll support raising the debt ceiling, Demint responded:
"No, I won't. Not unless this debt ceiling is combined with some path to balancing our budget, returning to 2008 spending levels, repealing Obamacare. We have got to demonstrate that we have the resolve to cut spending ... we cannot allow that to go through the Congress without showing the American people that we are going to balance the budget, and we're not going to continue to raise the debt in America."
Meanwhile in the House, Eric Cantor (R-VA), who joined the ranks of Republican spending cut cowards refusing to say how they'd slash the budget, insisted the looming government shutdown and worldwide economic calamity would be all President Obama's fault:
"The chief executive, the president, is as responsible as any in terms of running this government. The president has a responsibility, as much or more so than Congress, to make sure that we are continuing to function in a way that the people want."
Of course, it wasn't always this way with Congressional Republicans. Not when they were taking orders from George W. Bush.
As OpenCongress detailed after January's party-line vote to add $1.9 trillion to the debt ceiling, Republican intransigence began in earnest when Bush left the White House for good. As Donny Shaw documented:
The Republicans haven't always been against increasing the federal debt ceiling. This is the first time in recent history (the past decade or so) that no Republican has voted for the increase. In fact, on most of the ten other votes to increase the federal debt limit that the Senate has taken since 1997, the Republicans provided the majority of the votes in favor.
Using data from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Shaw compiled the handy table above showing the GOP blessed Bush's proposals to almost double the debt ceiling in just six short years.
Of course, those increases were the inevitable results of the Bush tax cut windfall for the wealthy, which accounted for half of the exploding deficits during his tenure. (The same Republicans are predictably silent about the deficit impact of extending the Bush tax cuts, which over the next decade would add $4 trillion - including $700 billion for the richest 2% of Americans - to the national debt.)
But that was then. Now a Democrat is in the Oval Office. And the Republican agenda, as Mitch McConnell admitted, is to make him "a one-term president." And he and his GOP allies are committed to doing just that, even if it is means playing a very dangerous game of chicken with the U.S. debt ceiling - and Americans' economic future.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)