There is an insane quality to the spectacle of President Barack Obama and the GOP leadership bargaining over the debt ceiling. Republicans are demanding huge cuts in basic social programs in return for allowing the nation to pay its debts and avoid sovereign default.
These demands amount to extortion and an assault on our political system. Yet, instead of rejecting them out of hand, Obama is treating them as if they were part of a legitimate debate over policy.
In the April 28 edition of The Atlantic, legal scholar Garrett Epps composed a speech that the president could give to the American people in case Congress failed to authorize raising the debt ceiling by the Aug. 2 deadline.
Obama would state that because it's his constitutional duty as president to uphold the law, he will unilaterally extend the debt ceiling: "[This obligation] is contained in Section Four of the Fourteenth Amendment, which directs, in no uncertain terms, that 'the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law ... shall not be questioned.'"
Never miss a local story.
The reasoning behind this provision is easy to grasp. When Congress passes laws and appropriates funds for implementing them, these expenditures have been "authorized by law."
If the government has to borrow money to implement these laws, then the resulting debt has been "authorized by law". When this borrowed money has been spent, the nation's creditors must still be paid. Period.
Furthermore, Republicans are threatening to do serious harm to the nation. A sovereign default will likely cause a second great recession, with more of the massive suffering and losses caused by the financial collapse of 2008.
By threatening to make this happen, Republicans are acting like political terrorists. In effect, they're taking the American people hostage. If Obama rewards these hostage-takers with concessions, what will prevent them from doing it again?
Why hasn't there been more outrage among voters?
The lingering effects of the 2008 economic collapse have left most Americans feeling vulnerable. They face stagnant incomes, job insecurity and rising health care and educational costs. The right-wing propaganda machine has very successfully exploited this economic anxiety.
It has gotten people to think of the federal budget like a family budget. When money is scarce and the future uncertain, the last thing a family should do is go on a spending spree, using credit cards to buy things they badly want but can't afford.
The GOP narrative is that the government, by running large deficits, is doing what no responsible family would do in these tough times. That makes people afraid that the very bad things that happen to spendthrift families will happen to the country as a whole. Republicans are presenting themselves as forcefully preventing a national disaster.
The GOP has grossly distorted the analogy between federal and family budgets. The nation (or national family) has plenty of money to afford Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (although it could get nearly twice the bang for its health care buck with a single-payer plan).
As a percentage of GDP, federal taxes are at their lowest level since 1950. The Bush tax cuts reduced what were already historically low tax rates under Clinton.
According to the Brookings Tax Policy Center, 38 percent of these cuts went to the top one percent of earners in 2010, and 55 percent of the tax breaks went to the top 10 percent of earners. The lower 60 percent received just 20 percent.
The wealthy got wealthier, while budget deficits soared.
Recall that with the Clinton tax rates, the economy was booming, unemployment was low and the federal budget was balanced. There was no good reason for the Bush tax cuts.
Last November, the Congressional Research Service revised the total cost of permanently extending all of the Bush tax cuts to $5.048 trillion over the next ten years.
There are trillions in revenue that could be used for deficit reduction by reinstating the Clinton rates, at least for the wealthiest households.
Would anyone seriously argue that our annual defense expenditures of $1 trillion to $1.4 trillion could not be reduced by $100 billion ($1 trillion over 10 years)? Yes, the GOP.
Why has Obama allowed the GOP to threaten our nation over what he knows are phony issues? He and the GOP leadership have a lot to answer for.