The truth will set you free. Just not if you're John Boehner trying to explain the need to raise the U.S. debt ceiling to the Tea Party. Less than three weeks after declaring "there's no daylight between the Tea Party and me," Boehner told shocked Ohio Tea Partiers that the federal government will have to repeatedly increase the debt ceiling in the years to come. That these most ardent Republican voters can't handle the truth may explain Boehner's inability to speak it in public.
As Reuters detailed, Speaker Boehner told a gathering of Buckeye state Tea Partiers last month that the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling must be raised now - and not for the last time:
The private April 25 meeting was convened by the Speaker of the House of Representatives at the request of Tea Party leaders, who were seething over recent Republican compromises, most notably on the 2011 budget.
One of the 25 or so leaders, all from Boehner's district, asked him if Republicans would raise America's $14.3 trillion debt limit.
According to half a dozen attendees interviewed by Reuters, the most powerful Republican in Washington said "yes."
"And we're going to have to raise it again in the future," he added. With the mass retirement of America's Baby Boomers, he explained, it would take 20 years to balance the U.S. budget and 30 years after that to erase the nation's huge fiscal deficit.
Of course, Boehner's claim is indisputably true. With $1.5 trillion deficits projected for this year and next (ballooned in part by the $800 billion, two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts so beloved by the GOP), this summer's debt ceiling increase will have to be quickly followed by another. And despite the Republican posturing on the subject, every budget proposal now on the table will add trillions more in red ink over the next decade. That includes the Ryan 2012 budget plan supported by 235 House Republicans, which will add another $6 trillion in debt in 10 years.
Nevertheless, Boehner's concession to reality wasn't well received by the tea bagging faithful:
That answer incensed many of the Tea Party activists, for whom raising the debt limit is anathema.
"You could have knocked me out of my chair," said Denise Robertson, a computer programmer who belongs to the Preble County Liberty Group. "Fifty years?"
She said "my fantasy now" is someone will challenge Boehner in the 2012 Republican primaries. "If we could find someone good to run against him, I'd campaign for them every day," Robertson said.
"I am sick of the tears," she added, a sarcastic reference to Boehner's famous propensity to cry. "I want results."
If that reaction is any indication, Americans can expect more tears - and double-dealing bordering on schizophrenia - from John Boehner on the debt ceiling.
At times, Boehner has provided a voice of reason for a party almost completely bereft of them.
As the Wall Street Journal reported on November 18 ("Boehner Warns GOP on Debt Ceiling"), Boehner pressed his newly enlarged Republican caucus on the need to raise the debt ceiling and so protect the full faith and credit of the United States.
"I've made it pretty clear to them that as we get into next year, it's pretty clear that Congress is going to have to deal with this," Mr. Boehner, who is slated to become House speaker in January, told reporters.
"We're going to have to deal with it as adults," he said, in what apparently are his most explicit comments to date. "Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part."
If an increase in the current debt limit of $14.3 trillion does not pass, it would suggest the country may not meet its obligations and would shake the financial system. It could rock the bond market, rattle the dollar and scare away foreign buyers of U.S. debt.
Which is exactly right. The specter of a global financial cataclysm caused by the default of the United States caused most sentient mammals to denounce that prospect as "insanity" (Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee), resulting in "severe harm" (McCain economic adviser Mark Zandi), "financial collapse and calamity throughout the world" (Senator Lindsey Graham) and "you can't not raise the debt ceiling" (House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan). In January, Boehner acknowledged as much:
"That would be a financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy. Remember, the American people on election day said, 'we want to cut spending and we want to create jobs.' And you can't create jobs if you default on the federal debt."
But under constant pressure from Tea Party Republicans, the man who promised an "adult conversation" on spending chose political power over the national interest. Boehner quickly backed down on his proposed $35 billion in spending cuts, yielding to Tea Party demands for the $61 billion package of reductions which later passed the House. And by January, Boehner was insisting President Obama would have to make concessions to Republicans on the debt ceiling that George W. Bush, needless to say, never faced:
The American people will not stand for such an increase unless it is accompanied by meaningful action by the President and Congress to cut spending and end the job-killing spending binge in Washington. While America cannot default on its debt, we also cannot continue to borrow recklessly, dig ourselves deeper into this hole, and mortgage the future of our children and grandchildren. Spending cuts - and reforming a broken budget process - are top priorities for the American people and for the new majority in the House this year, and it is essential that the President and Democrats in Congress work with us in that effort.
Fresh off his budget battle in April, a newly confident Speaker Boehner made abundantly clear he would join the hardliners in the House and Senate holding the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling hostage. As Politico reported, Boehner set out to prove "there's no daylight between the tea party and me":
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), fresh off the budget talks, told donors this weekend that if Obama wants an up or down vote on the debt ceiling he's not going to get it.
"The president says I want you to send me a clean bill," Boehner said. "Well guess what, Mr. President, not a chance you're going to get a clean bill."
"There will not be an increase in the debt limit without something really, really big attached to it," he continued in a clip of his remarks at a fundraiser that was played during "Face the Nation."
In his address last week to the Economic Club of New York, Speaker Boehner made clear what those "big things" would be. Despite having just voted for the Paul Ryan budget which would add $6 trillion in federal debt over the next decade, John Boehner demanded spending cuts at least as large as the increase in the debt ceiling. As Boehner trumpeted Sunday:
"Medicare, Medicaid - everything should be on the table, except raising taxes."
It's no wonder the Washington Post's Matt Miller deemed Boehner's "awe-inspiring hypocrisy on the debt limit" one of those moments of "political behavior that can only be dubbed Super-Duper Hypocrisy So Brazen They Must Really Think We're Idiots." After all, despite their current posturing, John Boehner and GOP Congressional majorities voted seven times to raise the debt ceiling under George W. Bush. During his tenure, the U.S. national debt doubled, fueled by the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the Medicare prescription drug plan and the unfunded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. John Boehner voted for all of it. But now that a Democrat is in the White House, he proclaims that this debt ceiling vote is "the opportunity for America to get its fiscal house in order."
Ultimately, of course, the U.S. debt ceiling will be raised and not just once. John Boehner knows this, even if his party's Tea Party activists don't - or won't - believe it. But Speaker Boehner can't have it both ways for much longer. He will have to choose between the national interest and his own political future.
All of which means the Tea Partiers and the rest of us alike haven't seen the last of John Boehner's tears.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)