Dealing with the ceiling

Washington’s brouhaha over the federal debt crisis seems far away. Yet it is so close to your pocketbook and your children’s future well-being, you can smell its fetid breath. But it smells better Monday than it did Sunday.

Let’s cut through the rhetoric. Good ol’ Uncle Sam is in hock up to his eyeballs, owing $14.3 trillion.

Washington’s political armies have been locked in mortal combat, with a deadline looming over whether to increase the nation’s debt-limit ceiling. Both sides in Congress SAY they want to cut the federal deficit. The President said he is willing to reduce the deficit over 10-12 years, but almost all the reduction conveniently would take place after he has left office. An inescapable conclusion is that our nation is poorly managed by the Political Class.

Sunday night, Congressional leaders reached a deal to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for spending cuts, avoiding a government default and shutdown. But this is still not a done deal; only the leaders of both parties in Congress have agreed. It still needs to be voted on by both Chambers and signed by the President. So, it ain’t over. And, our fiscal crisis is still not “solved” even if this becomes law. There is more wrangling, squawking and acrimony to come on taxing and spending.

We saw extraordinary brinksmanship. The Republicans could not get a better deal, unless they caused a default by killing a debt limit increase.

But the American public did not want the federal government to shut down, and the typical American voter would have lumped the debt-limit absolutists, right or wrong, into the group of politicians they regard as obstructionists. The absolutists were willing to close down government. To march off and man the barricades and burn government’s house. But they couldn’t count on responsible business leaders to follow. We are not willing to wreck America’s financial system, diminish America’s global credit leadership, halt the weak economic recovery in its tracks, and stop creating jobs.

Borrowing $14.3 trillion ought to be a crime, but extricating ourselves from laws enacted by previous Congresses is tricky. The current bill has no immediate tax increases, spending cuts are real, and it has a trigger requiring Congress to cut spending if deficit reduction does not occur.

Tea partiers, most of whom resist compromise, can be happy over forcing both Rs and Ds to make big spending cuts, the largest in 15 years, and possibly more cuts to come. The liberals are howling, and tea partiers should applaud a victory even if they may feel fiscal problems remain unresolved because too many conservative legislators compromised.

Successful legislators understand that politics is an arena of compromise. You push for your principles as hard as you can, without being foolish enough to fall on your political sword by marginalizing yourself, by excluding yourself from meaningful participation because of dogmatism. Why commit political death, when you can live to fight another day? You do not burn down your political house to save it.

Sure, compromise is distasteful. No one likes to do it on either side. But in politics, compromise is the reality. Things rarely get done without it. If you are a politician unwilling to compromise, get out now, because your destiny is to become a discontented failure, relegated to the cellar in the shack out on the political Back Forty. Voters instinctively understand not to entrust government to politicians so intransigent that they are willing to destroy something if it’s not exactly what they want.


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John R. Smith


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