The strangest thing about the government shutdown/debt ceiling fights — which are really the same fight, separated only by dates on the calendar — is that they are about nothing.
There is no point to these fights except to have them. That’s why Ted Cruz’s carny-barker speech was, in its way, perfect. That’s why Cruz citing Dr. Seuss, a well-known liberal, in his talkathon on Obamacare was so rich.
Harry Reid said Cruz’s speech was a giant waste of time. Of course it was. That was the point of the entire made-for-TV affair. It’s mindless spectacle and the opposite of governing. It’s the continuation of phony crisis set upon phony crisis, which is why there can be no real resolution. How can you have a resolution when there’s no problem?
Today, our leaders shut down the government — for no reason. By October 17, the richest country in the history of the world decides whether it will refuse to pay its bills — for no reason.
Failing to pay our bills would be catastrophic. And foolish. And a pointless call to the repo man, who is probably waiting to take Ted Cruz’s microphone right now. At this point, someone usually mentions that we should refuse to raise the debt ceiling — which allows the government to allocate money it has already spent — because of our out-of-control rising deficit. But there’s only one problem: There is no rising deficit. The deficit is falling and rapidly. If you didn’t know that, don’t worry. If you read the polls, it seems that no one knows it.
As Dave Weigel points out, Republican politicians are among the few who do know this deficit secret, which is why you rarely hear them mention it. They don’t want anyone to know they’ve actually won (for better or worse) the argument. But because of the recovery and sequestration and tax hikes and budget cuts — and yes, even because of the spending cuts made after the last phony-baloney debt-ceiling crisis — the deficit fell $200 million last year and is expected to fall more than $400 million this year and is now approximately half of what it was in 2009.
So why default? There’s no reason, except that the Thelma-and-Louisaians in the Tea Party wing of the House think a cliff dive might actually be fun. These guys are up for anything. And since they can’t complain about the deficit, they have to latch onto something. Or, in this case, everything. This time they’ve compiled a ransom list of demands, which reads like a Jim DeMint fever dream. You’ve got the pipeline, Dodd-Frank, EPA, Consumer Financial Protection and, of course, a one-year delay of Obamacare. There’s more. In fact, if they included stripping the Fed, the IRS and the 17th amendment, the menu would have been just about complete.
But here’s what happens if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, and it’s not so funny: The government runs out of money after paying interest on the debt, paying The Big Three (Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid), paying The Big One (Military) and paying off little niceties like education and food stamps. That’s it. After that, nothing gets paid. We will have literally run out of money unless we start selling off, say, the Grand Canyon. The world’s haven would have officially gone rogue. The markets would go crazy. Our credit rating would get downgraded. The cost of paying off the debt would rise. The FBI wouldn’t be able to check out terrorist threats. The NSA wouldn’t be able to read our emails. It’s so absurd that it obviously can’t happen. By which I mean, it obviously can’t happen and yet it might.
Here’s the kicker: Even with the ransom note as part of their bill, House leaders couldn’t get their entire caucus to go along with a debt ceiling hike. Maybe we will default.
A government shutdown doesn’t compare as a self-inflicted wound. You remember the concept of mutually assured destruction. Default is self-assured destruction. A government shutdown would do nothing more than inconvenience many people and possibly endanger a few. Choosing to become a deadbeat nation, though, would spark a crisis.
The real point of the shutdown, on the other hand, would be its very pointlessness. The argument, as you’ve probably heard, is about whether to defund Obamacare, which isn’t going to be defunded whether or not the government shuts down. Cruz claims Obamacare has already been a disaster for America, even though it has barely begun. Rep. Cory Gardner claims Obamacare has robbed him of his insurance, although he refuses to give out any details. This is the paranoid world of GOP political theater.
Try George F. Will for a more reasoned approach. He thinks a shutdown is foolish and defaulting on the debt more foolish still. And while Will strongly opposes Obamacare, he realizes Republican panic is based, in large part, on the fear that the American people might actually like it. And so he writes that if Obamacare is as bad as conservatives think, they “should allow what Lincoln called ‘the silent artillery of time’ to destroy it.”
That’s a very nice line. Let the silent artillery do its work, one way or the other. It sure as hell beats repeatedly shooting yourself in the foot.
Mike Littwin is a columnist for The Colorado Independent.