Playing chicken with federal debt

Leaders of both parties are playing a dangerous game of political chicken with issues related to our national debt — dangerous for the re-election prospects of party members, but more importantly, for the economic future of this country.

Americans can only hope that behind the public rhetoric and smack talk, real conversations are occurring, perhaps in the ongoing budget-cutting talks being led by Vice President Joe Biden or in discussions between President Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress.

The latest episode of a dare accepted came Tuesday evening, when House Speaker John Boehner brought to a vote a measure to increase the debt ceiling without tying it to budget cuts that Republicans want. Obama and other leading Democrats had said raising the debt ceiling shouldn’t be tied to budget cuts, and demanded they be separated. But when they were, the measure was overwhelmingly rejected, with nearly half the Democrats in the House joining Republicans to kill it.

Now Democratic leaders are accusing Boehner of calling the debt-ceiling vote as a political ploy, something to use in campaign attack ads against Democrats who voted for it. Polls show raising the debt ceiling without cutting spending is deeply unpopular with a majority of Americans.

Meanwhile, in the wake of a special election in New York that a Democrat won, Democrats have made it clear they will attack Republicans for voting for Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan that would significantly change Medicare. Polls also show a majority of Americans opposed to that part of Ryan’s plan.

Even The New York Times, which vehemently opposes Ryan’s proposal, chastised Democrats over the weekend for failing to produce a budget plan of their own.

News reports indicate the budget-cutting group headed by Biden is near an agreement on cuts that would total $1 trillion over 10 years. That’s welcome, but only a quarter of what Obama’s own debt commission said is needed over the next decade.

The real head-butting will occur over needed cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicare — which Democrats on the far left adamantly oppose — and raising revenue by eliminating tax breaks — which the GOP’s tea-party wing is fighting just as vehemently.

In two months, if nothing is done, the debt-ceiling issue will come to a head. That’s when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says the United States will begin defaulting on its financial obligations if the ceiling isn’t lifted. Even President Ronald Reagan saw defaulting as a catastrophe for the country, and pleaded with Congress to raise the ceiling.

Now, Americans watch as political jalopies careen toward the Aug. 2 debt-ceiling deadline. Some of us cheer them on, more eager to see the other side destroyed in the coming wreck than in finding acceptable solutions. Unfortunately, necessary debate about our long-term debt may be put off until after the 2012 election.

We can only hope that someone hits the brakes and offers a more constructive means of crafting such critical public policy.


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