Published January 15, 2013
"Increasing America's debt weakens us domestically and internationally. I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America's debt limit."
-- Then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., in a March 16, 2006 floor speech explaining his decision to oppose a request to increase the federal debt limit, then set at $8.2 trillion.
Welcome to the reality of living in a nation with a government that either will not or cannot pass a budget.
When borrowing and spending happen out of tandem, the pleasure of purchasing isn’t tinged with the pain of additional debt and, likewise, the discomfort at new debt isn’t leavened with happy thoughts for politicians of welfare checks and new fighter jets.
The Constitution gives Congress the power to spend and to borrow, but when the two things happen out of step, things get hairy.
In September, Congress voted to spend something like $525 billion to keep the government running until late March – a bump of about $8 billion over the previous six months. Lawmakers didn’t need to address the other two thirds of federal spending, “mandatory” entitlement programs that were designed to rise in perpetuity.
The members who voted “aye” on the “continuing resolution” did so knowing that the outlays would outrun the current debt limit. As the world’s largest debtor, the federal government has to borrow something beyond a quarter of everything it spends.
Now, though, the government has actually exhausted its borrowing power and, without a hike in the credit limit, would have to slash spending dramatically – all the way back to 2008 levels.
While 2008 levels don’t sound too bad at first blush, the cost of those “mandatory” programs and the cost of servicing the debt already accrued has increased dramatically in the past four years.
In rough terms, the government spends about $250 billion a month. Of that, $36 billion is to pay off the existing $16.4 trillion in debt – about $8.3 billion a month more than in 2008.
By deciding to spend without budgeting, Democrats have left themselves wide open to the current showdown.
Rather than having the politically dangerous regular budget process, the Obama Democrats have opted for straight spending bills for most of the president’s first term.
When a budget is completed, as the rules require, hawks and spenders have to reach some agreement about how much to spend and tax and borrow. Deals are made and politically painful votes are cast.
Obama, who is a big believer in more spending to keep the economy afloat, was not interested in seeing cuts in an election year and Senate Democrats, concerned about protecting their majority, were not inclined to be profiles in political courage.
And in 2011 and 2010 there were similar political pressures and, well, a desire to not face the nasty business of voting to borrow another $1 trillion. The economic emergency of the recession that followed the Panic of 2008 gave way seamlessly to the political calculations of 2012.
But by leaving the borrowing limit for another day, the Obama Democrats have empowered the small-government budget hawks in the House to make fresh demands for cuts in order to raise debt ceiling.
As a result, the government is dangling at the brink of what Democrats call “default on our obligations” and Republicans call “partial government shutdown.”
Whatever you call it, it would be stark stuff. By the time the “mandatory” programs and interest payments were done and the military was funded to the degree necessary to protect the nation there wouldn’t be much left over. Whatever you think of John Maynard Keynes, sucking that much money out of the economy all at once would be a blow.
Add to that the full-throttle freak-out of creditors and investors who wondered what in the name of Sam Rayburn was going on in Washington, and you could see some serious disruptions, including the start of a worldwide recession.
Obama was cross and crabby at the final press conference of his first term, scowling in exasperation at Republicans who want to use the debt limit as leverage.
But it was the political calculation by Democrats to spend without budgeting – to avoid the process by which the pleasure of spending and pain of borrowing and taxing are intertwined – that has left the president in this bind.
For the conservatives who watch the nation hurtling toward fiscal oblivion, now is a better time to take the medicine and force reform than to shuffle along for another year or two or four without making big changes.
Liberals are proud that Obama risked his re-election to pass an unpopular new health-insurance entitlement program. Conservatives are looking for similar audacity from their representatives in Congress when it comes to debt and spending.
And it is the Obama Democrats who have given them the chance.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“If we didn't do hypocrisy here every night we would probably have a three-minute panel every night. It is quite staggering. It's not just that [President Obama] changed his position [on the debt limit], but the way he heaps opprobrium on the people who are saying today exactly what he said seven years ago.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.