The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.
It was vintage Barney Frank at last Friday’s meeting of the New England Council. He was savagely funny, insightful, acerbic and provocative. This was particularly true when he discussed the federal deficit and lifting the debt ceiling, the deadline for which seems to have now been moved from May back to August. He ruffled more than a few feathers.
“The debt limit isn’t being raised as a favor to me,” the Fourth District Congressman scoffed, noting “I didn’t vote for what caused that deficit (two wars and the Bush tax cuts).” And he’s right, a lot of the sanctimonious hand-wringing by so-called deficit hawks is being done by the very solons who advocated borrowing heavily against our grandchildren’s futures rather than call for shared post- 9/11 sacrifice and paying for our wars out of current revenues. These are also the same wise ones who told us that deficits caused by the Bush tax cuts didn’t matter and would be good for the economy.
We would expect neophyte legislators swept into office by Tea Party hysteria last fall to take reflexively stupid positions, saying simply as they have just “cut spending and we won’t default.” As Barney notes, there is waste everywhere in government, but it’s not layered around the edges and able to be easily trimmed. It’s marbled throughout the system and requires careful cutting. But that requires hard work, and is not susceptible to ham-handed demagoguery.
Frank agrees that Medicare needs to be addressed “but not alone,” adding people want to be well- treated when they’re sick. For years a prime Frank target has been what he calls unnecessary military spending , particularly that which is spent on the defense of NATO countries . The rationale for the post-WWII commitment protect them against Soviet communism is long gone.. Nor do we need the overkills from three different deterrent forces, the Army’s ICBM system; the Air Force’s SAC (Strategic Air Command) power and the Navy’s nuclear submarine fleet. Give up just one of the three, and you could save $15 billion – $20 billion a year.
He also asserts it’s time to leave both Iraq and Afghanistan. As for the enduring Al Qaeda threat, he added, we can’t create political will from the outside and …we can’t plug every rat-hole in the world.” Furthermore, he says: “We’re 3500 miles from Libya. France and Italy could spit and hit Libya if the winds are at their backs. Why does the world depend on us?” Big cuts can be made in DOD, but so far there are few takers on the other side.
So we return to the looming debt ceiling crisis. Barney correctly notes that an important point being missed is that the debt limit is not about the future, but about past obligations. But then he disturbingly concludes that, given the congressional impasse, we just may have to resign ourselves to not increasing the ceiling on schedule.
Applying an inapt domestic analogy to the international stage, he matter-of-factly says the inability of Republicans and Democrats to agree to a new cap may lead inevitably to a “temporary hiatus—a day, a week or two– in our ability to pay our bills.” Seemingly untroubled by that outcome, he reminds us that Congress only passed the 2008 emergency Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) after an earlier NO vote sent the market to its biggest one day drop ever.
This shock therapy would mean the first time in United States history that this nation will have defaulted on the payment of principal and interest on government bonds. Frank’s apparent flippancy on this is more than a little unnerving. Failure to maintain the nation’s creditworthiness could have global implications, none of them pretty. It could plunge us back into recession, according to Alan Blinder , Princeton University economics professor and former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, in the WSJ.
Interest rates would rise dramatically, Blinder warns, as other nations begin to see debt ceiling politics as a permanent part of American political gamesmanship. It could also affect the willingness of other countries to regard the US as a safe haven in troubled times and could hasten moves to switch investments to a basket of currencies, not the dollar.
The fact that some Republicans are willing to contemplate cuts of 40 percent so as not to exceed the debt ceiling is, as Frank says, “evidence of a dark, self-destructive impulse.” That Barney Frank would, even for the rhetorical sport of shocking his audience, at which he often excels, toy with going that route, is unsettling and discouraging.
Maybe I’m overreacting and this is just part of a clever Brer Rabbit strategy. But I fear it is really rooted in his very bleak assessment of the current political landscape. “John Boehner has lost control of the House,” he says. “The most right-wing elements have taken over.” The Tea Party is in charge because once-thoughtful Republican conservatives now fear losing their primaries to more radical right candidates. And the Senate, undemocratic and dysfunctional with its 60 vote distortion of the Constitution and American history, is little better.
If Tom Coburn walks away from one effort and Barney Frank from another, where are we to look for leadership? Ironically, the most reasoned recent response to the debt ceiling date came on WBUR’s On Point from David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s old budget director, who took both parties to task and spoke truths that current politicians are afraid to embrace.
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