Debt limit recklessness rooted in growing right-wing nihilism
The nation’s first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, viewed debt-paying in terms of national honor
Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) wears a “Make America Great Again” hat as she leaves the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 29, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Republicans in the U.S. government are close to making the deliberate choice not to pay the nation’s bills.
Much of the discussion around this malfeasance commonly involves smoothed-over terms like “debt limit” and “default.” But the plain truth demands phrases like “extortion” and “betrayal.” The Republicans who are solely responsible for the crisis can soberly be described as economic scoundrels, and the GOP members of the Colorado delegation to Congress exemplify the grave threat their party poses to the country’s financial well-being.
The federal government borrows money to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized. The debt limit is an arbitrary cap on the government’s ability to borrow money to pay its bills.
In the past, when the government has bumped up against the limit, Congress has always altered it to ensure the country could satisfy debts. Since 1960, lawmakers have raised or otherwise adjusted the debt limit 78 times, mostly during Republican administrations.
Why is it so important to do so? The Constitution says paying the national tab is mandatory. And, practically speaking, default on the nation’s debt would be disastrous. Social Security, Medicare, veterans benefits, national defense — it’s all at risk, and the effects of default would ripple through the national and global economy.
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The nation’s first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, was preoccupied with the subject of the nation’s debt, accumulated largely during the Revolutionary War. Hamilton thought timely payment of the public debt was a primary avenue by which the infant nation could achieve greatness.
“States, like individuals, who observe their engagements are respected and trusted, while the reverse is the fate of those who pursue an opposite conduct,” he said.
There have been several occasions in the country’s history when the federal government failed to pay its debts on time or according to expected terms, particularly after the War of 1812, but also during the Great Depression, when President Franklin Roosevelt suspended the gold standard, and in 1979, when technical problems and high inflation pressures contributed to the delay of payments to some small investors.
These occasions might cast doubt on assertions that a default would be unprecedented, but history puts into relief the malice of the current Republican position. Previous debt-payment breakdowns were the unintended result of extraordinary circumstances. Threat of default today is a premeditated assault on the good name of the nation.
Republicans' willingness to push the nation toward chaos is of a piece with the growing right-wing nihilism that also found expression in election denial, the Jan. 6 insurrection, gun fetishization and even admiration for the murderous Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin.
Few members of Congress embody this recklessness as thoroughly as Rep. Lauren Boebert of Silt. Her approach, like that of other far-right House members, is to hold the debt hostage as a way to extract the ransom of severe spending cuts.
In April, the Republican majority in the U.S. House narrowly passed an austerity measure, the Limit, Save, Grow Act, that proposed to temporarily raise the debt limit on the condition that last year’s landmark climate change, health care and tax bill be dismantled and that other roll-backs, which could result in the loss of health and food assistance for millions of Americans, be imposed.
The measure never had a shot in the Senate. But the House Freedom Caucus, of which Boebert is one of the most vocal members and which has profound influence over Speaker Kevin McCarthy, insists it’s the Republicans’ final offer.
Republicans like Boebert are grossly irresponsible in predicating bill-paying on spending cuts. Governments, like individuals, simply must pay their debts, and House members who are concerned about spending can enact reductions through the appropriations and other standard budgetary processes.
But they’re also hypocritical. Even as McCarthy was sending the message to President Joe Biden that the nation’s spending was so out of control that it should default before it pays what it owes, Boebert and other supposed deficit hawks were angling to secure earmark spending in their own districts. Boebert’s participation in this practice is especially galling, since she criticized earmarks as “corrupt” when Democrats had the House majority.
The greater indicator of hypocrisy, however, is that, going back at least to 1980, annual U.S. discretionary spending has generally gone up under Republican administrations and flattened under Democratic administrations. Related to this trend: The federal deficit over roughly the same period has generally gone up under Republican presidents and down under Democratic ones.
Republican Rep. Ken Buck of Windsor outdid even the Freedom Caucus. He was one of only four Republicans who voted against the Limit, Save, Grow Act — not because it was cruel policy but because it wasn’t extreme enough. In the face of an imminent economic catastrophe, he framed his vote as “taking a stand against out-of-control spending.”
Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs is aligned with the Freedom Caucus on the debt limit, and he has a history of misbehavior on the debt limit and flirting with default.
There might be a legitimate debate about unsustainable government spending. But Republicans are conflating that conversation with the debt limit as part of bloodsport enmity to political opponents and, indeed, politics itself.
National default could occur as soon as June 1, and the Republicans’ willingness to push the nation toward chaos is of a piece with a growing right-wing nihilism that also found expression in election denial, the Jan. 6 insurrection, gun fetishization and even admiration for the murderous Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin.
One of the ways Hamilton helped lay the foundation for the United States was his plan for the federal government to assume and pay state debt left over from the Revolution. For Hamilton, the so-called assumption plan was a matter of patriotism and national honor.
Boebert likes to invoke the spirit of the Revolution when she’s engaged in sedition. But that same spirit is absent now that the nation’s honor is on the line.
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