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Bill Straub: It’s a battle, truly, in dealing with federal debt limit — not a time for jokes or blackmail

It was at the Battle of Ben Tre during the Vietnam War in 1968 that an unidentified American army major rather infamously told journalist Peter Arnett that as a result of prevailing circumstances “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

Congressional Republicans have embraced that rather dubious concept in dealing with the $31.3 trillion federal debt – they believe it’s become necessary to destroy the nation’s economy in order to save it.

The Treasury Department has made it known that the time is nigh to once again suspend the debt limit, thus allowing the government to borrow the funds necessary to pay off the obligations it has already incurred. Failure to do so likely would result in default, almost certainly leading to recession and any number of unappetizing fiscal consequences while obliterating the full faith and credit of the United States government.

Rather than addressing the matter at hand, Republican lawmakers, under the persistent maladroit leadership of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, have decided to hold the debt limit hostage, allowing the process to proceed only if President Biden agrees to a series of draconian budget cuts amounting to $4.8 trillion that would, as always, carry much greater consequences for the needy than the well off.

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

This package, which passed in late April and is pending in the Senate, where it has no chance at success, would restrict spending to last year’s levels, an effective 9 percent cut. Spending could then increase by only one percent or less over the next 10 years, which would not keep pace with inflation and result in a funding cut of 24 percent below current projections. It also kills many of the Biden administration initiatives aimed at global climate change and increased funding for the Internal Revenue Service, which, ironically, would serve to reduce the deficit by collecting more in taxes.The GOP also wants to reclaim money appropriated to address the COVID-19 crisis that hasn’t yet been spent.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive Washington-based think tank, said congressional Republicans are using the debt limit as a “bargaining chip to force a set of unpopular, harmful policies — policies that would make deep cuts in a host of national priorities; leave more people hungry, homeless, and without health coverage; and make it easier for wealthy people to cheat on their taxes.”

Doesn’t that sound inviting?

Of course, all of this meets with the approval of the five members of Kentucky’s GOP House delegation, which, to a man, voted for it, Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, the epitome of an empty suit, told FOX News recently that the measure ends the federal government’s “reckless spending spree.”

“We need to get our fiscal house in order so it’s not just about avoiding default in the short term,” Barr said. “It is about stopping the immoral stealing from future generations of Americans, limiting spending, ending the era of overspending in Washington, saving taxpayer dollars and growing the economy.”

Addressing the paltry one percent annual increase over 10 years, Barr said that given the massive debt and the threat to the economy the sum was “very reasonable.”

“I think the fact that we still allow some level of spending growth over the next 10 years but save $4.8 trillion in this package shows that we’re being very reasonable with this proposal,” he said.

Barr went on to say that giving Biden and congressional Democrats “just another credit card is totally reckless.”

Blaming Biden for the national debt after serving less than three years in office, considering it has been accumulating for decades, is Barr at his silliest, which is saying something. During his four years in office, from 2017 to 2021, former President Donald J. Trump, a Republican who is looking to move back into the White House, saw the national debt grow by 40.43 percent, from $20.24 trillion to $28.43 trillion, an increase of $8.2 trillion. The debt has increased under Biden but well below the level of his predecessor.

To be fair to Trump, and, by God, that is nearly impossible to do, a lot of that spent money can be attributed to COVID relief. The same can be said about Biden.

But one of the largest factors contributing to the debt under Trump was an initiative Andy just loved to death – the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017. That little ditty, which included slashing the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent – will cost the treasury $1.47 billion while adding $600 billion elsewhere in growth and savings.

Republicans didn’t appear at all concerned about a debt spiral during those years under their party’s administration. Oh well, that was then, this is now.

All this explains, at least partially, why the Republican package is a joke. Given what they view as the extent of the problem, the solution can’t be limited to spending cuts that roil the culture. At no point in the discussion has anyone expressed the need for a tax increase. Instead of harming those with meager incomes who rely on government programs just to get by, a tax hike could be aimed at
corporations and those earning in the millions of dollars who currently aren’t contributing their fair share.

That goes against Republican orthodoxy – punch down on the poor and let the wealthy keep their dough in their pockets. If Republicans seriously addressed the situation, they would have to address revenue as well as spending. But they won’t.

The plan as stated would take a meat axe to discretionary spending which runs a gamut from, according to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, spending on defense, veterans’ health care, child care and preschool, medical research and public health, food and drug safety inspectors, Pell Grants and college work-study, K-12 education, environmental protection, housing, and some transportation programs, among many others.
To make matters worse, congressional Republicans don’t really intend for the cuts to be made across the board. McCarthy has already indicated that defense and veterans’ benefits will receive some form of protection. And border security will remain a high GOP priority. That means potential cuts in those areas will be shifted to other programs, likely placing an even greater burden on the poor, the disabled and the under educated.

The Republican measure, called the Limit, Save, Grow Act, is budgeting through extortion, either forcing the collapse of the economy through default or avoiding same by cutting the throats of those who need social programs. Whatever the thoughts of the proper course, this is not the appropriate venue – the normal budget process is where these things should be worked out.

Through this overt blackmail that McCarthy undoubtedly considers very clever, he hopes to force President Biden to the negotiating table to, no doubt, share in the fallout from gutting necessary domestic programs. Biden thus far has proved unwilling to bite, although he is slated to meet with the Speaker, possibly next week.

It has been suggested that Biden invoke the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and suspend the debt limit via executive order. That particular provision maintains the “validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payments of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

It would be a daring move by the usually risk-averse Biden. It might also be the only way out.

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