An ‘epochal moment’ for tea partiers and Republicans in Washington

The British layman and American college professors, intellectual soul mates that they are, frequently use a term from astronomy when describing those critical, decisive moments in life. They call these pivotal events “epochal moments” — a point of no return in the order of things, when what comes “after” is forever different than what was “before.”

Regular Americans, predictably, have much trendier terms for describing these crucial crossroads.

In comic books, it is called the moment of truth. In the NFL, it’s “suddendeath” over time. To Yogi Berra, it was the “fork in the road.”

In war and business and all-things competitive, it is a watershed moment, or the breaking point.

But whatever your preferred term, it is clear that one such moment is rapidly racing toward the congressional Republicans who this past November seized control of the U.S. House from the kingdom of Nancy Pelosi.

For the Republicans who promised to restore fiscal discipline in Washington, their “epochal moment” will be the hour they are forced to decide whether to increase the nation’s debt ceiling from its current level of about $14 trillion to something even outrageously, irresponsibly, indefensibly higher.

A quick sidebar here. Over the next several months, I am going to dedicate a great deal of space in this column to describe the scope, magnitude and dimensions of America’s government debt crisis.

Last week, during a meeting of the president’s debt commission, famed fiscal conservative Sen. Tom Coburn called America’s annual spending deficit and accumulated national debt an existential threat to America — a fiscal cancer. Coburn argued that it could bring this great republic to its knees. Coburn is right, and we’ll spend a lot of time here discussing why.

Which ties us back to the Republican Congress’ moment of truth.

Here’s the rough explanation of the debt ceiling dilemma: The federal government can only go into as much debt as Congress authorizes. And sometime the middle of next year, as government’s tidal wave of annual spending invoices come due, not only will Uncle Sam have spent all the tax dollars you and I sent for the current year, but the credit line needed to fund all of the hundreds of billions in additional spending will also be gone.

At that point, roughly speaking, the federal government’s checks go “bounce” unless Congress authorizes additional debt.

To say that the federal government’s check will bounce is, in fairness, a dramatic understatement. The specter of defaulting on the debt is a big deal. It is bad news, and under any even semi-remotely normal set of circumstances, it should never even be contemplated.

But normal circumstances these are not.

Like opening the release on a pressure valve, in my view a vote to increase the debt ceiling is a vote to exacerbate and accommodate the existential threat of fiscal implosion that Sen. Coburn so aptly described — a vote to fiddle and postpone while our fiscal house burns.

While the short-term consequences of standing against additional debt are real and unwanted, the long-term, transcendental consequences of a “go-along-get-along” vote to boost the debt ceiling are far, far worse.

Indeed, the combination of President Barack Obama’s electoral shellacking and the deliciously painful political pressure that comes with the debt ceiling debate may be the last, best chance to reform spending in Washington before our economy and this nation get sucked into the fiscal deep water.

And thus for conservatives in Congress, a “moment of truth” was born.

Some Republicans and financial mavens and scads of liberals will say this view is simplistic. Like an alcoholic prepared to stop drinking tomorrow, they will say that reform should come later this year or next year or some year after the immediate urge has been quenched. First increase the debt ceiling, they will say, and then let’s fix Washington.

But sometimes in life what is simple is also true. And the Republicans epochal moment provides simplistically epochal leverage for the tea partiers in Washington to clean up Washington’s fiscal morass. When that leverage is gone, the Republicans epochal moment will have expired — and so will their political mandate.

Leveraging in the impending debt default to enact true spending reform?  For fiscal conservatives who promised to shake Washington by its silk, sheen lapels, it is an epochal opportunity indeed. And if they put that leverage to work and start cutting federal largess now— who knows? — maybe they’ll never run into that debt ceiling at all.

Josh Penry is a Western Slope native, the former Republican leader in the Colorado Senate, and he writes his columns on his BlackBerry. Send comments to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


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