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Debt Ceiling Russian Roulette

Sometime in the next few weeks we are going to find out whether the Republicans who assumed control in the House and increased their influence in the Senate are responsible, sober-minded stewards of the Republic or escapees from a loony bin. A vote to raise the debt ceiling is in the offing and there appears to be a sizable segment of the GOP — especially the newly minted Tea Party members — who wish to run screaming toward a gasoline dump with a lit stick of dynamite clenched in their teeth.

Their plan is to literally blow the world up and watch it burn by refusing to vote to raise the debt ceiling.

I will say at the top that there is a monumental difference between using the debt limit vote to wring concessions from Obama and the Democrats on spending, and the monstrously idiotic idea of opposing the increase in the first place. The Democrats will scream about holding the government “hostage” but it is nothing of the sort — just good, old-fashioned hardball politics, played to the hilt for the highest stakes imaginable: the solvency and surety of the U.S. economy.

For four years the Democrats had the majority, with historic margins of control for the last two. They have failed miserably to manage the people’s purse. No one is arguing that the Republicans are blameless in creating the mess we’re in. But the Democrats were given a chance to address the problem and, after four years of record spending, were found utterly lacking. In fact, they didn’t even try.

Incredibly, rather than addressing our fiscal woes, they acted in a manner that suggested a sneering condescension toward taxpayers and a flippant disregard for prudent, practical, responsible governance. Wild, out-of-control schemes to “remake America” with the passage of “historic” legislation, while grasping with both hands for control of private companies and the intimacies of citizens’ lives, have left the United States in a perilous plight: the real prospect of insolvency and default.

The Democrats do not want to make the cuts necessary to save us from our own profligacy. The pitiful sums the Republicans are talking about cutting from the FY 2011 budget — $50 billion or so as of this writing — are more symbolic than real. With the deficit expected to top $1.3 trillion, $50 billion is about on par with spitting into a four-alarm fire. And yet, we have a promise from Harry Reid that the Senate won’t consider such draconian cuts, and President Obama will never sign any such legislation.

What then, should be done? The only viable weapon at the Republicans’ command is their ability to threaten Armageddon by holding up the vote on raising the debt ceiling until the Democrats join them in addressing the root of the problem: unsustainable entitlement spending. Cutting non-defense discretionary spending — about 18% of the $3.7 trillion budget — won’t even come close to addressing the crisis. Only with the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads represented by a failure to raise the debt ceiling will both parties be forced to come to grips with our fiscal nightmare.

Threatening catastrophe and deliberately acting so that it occurs are two entirely different animals. The difference may be subtle, but forcing the issue of cutting spending by leaving open the possibility that a vote to raise the debt ceiling will fail is a far cry from embracing the horror in its totality and deliberately voting to destroy the economy.

Employing the former as a legislative tactic of last resort might be seen as dangerous, but the consequences of not getting the Democrats to agree to start undoing the mess they helped create are equally problematic. As for the latter, there is no tactical, logical, or responsible reason to commit national suicide by declaring, as Glenn Beck did on Judge Napolitano’s Fox News show:

The day they say we will not raise the debt ceiling, the rest of the world flees from America I believe … we owe that money … so that means we crash things, which I believe is inevitable, but I don’t think America is prepared for it.

What did Mr. Beck mean by so casually tossing about the phrase “crash things”? Bruce Bartlett:

I have spent considerable time trying to figure out what exactly would happen in the event that, at some point, the Treasury literally had no cash to pay interest on the debt, redeem maturing securities, pay Social Security benefits and so on. Some people believe that the Treasury has an almost unlimited ability to fudge the problem indefinitely. But I know that there are analysts at the GAO who are very concerned about hitting a hard limit on the Treasury’s legal authority not long after the debt ceiling is breached. The law is very unclear and has never been tested in court.

And yet, here’s a conservative leader in the Senate, Jim DeMint, telling freshmen members to bring about global chaos by voting “No” on raising the debt limit:

In an interview with Human Events editor Jason Mattera, DeMint says that even with a balanced budget amendment, which he spoke favorably of, he still will not vote to raise the debt limit since he hasn’t created this debt problem. And he encourages the young freshmen to not allow the other Republicans to talk them into it because they didn’t create this problem either. He wants the people who created this problem to take the blame for raising the debt limit.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the new Republican Party: Just like the old one but now with 25% more nuts and 50% more empty heads. At least Pontius Pilate had the decency to wash his hands before committing a despicable act of blatant irresponsibility. DeMint wants to crucify us without even using a handi-wipe before plunging the world into chaos.

This guy isn’t posturing as Obama and other Democrats did in 2006 when they voted against the debt ceiling. Their nauseating hypocrisy on the issue today notwithstanding, at the time, their opposition to raising the debt ceiling was a political gambit, a way to tweak the majority in the press. No one seriously believed that they were hoping for a default. But DeMint, Beck, and other Tea Party congressmen have made it plain that they seek nothing less than forcing a default in order to “save” us. Only when we are prostrate and the world is set afire will we come to our senses and get our fiscal house in order.

How “conservative” it is to deliberately default on your debts is a mystery. Nor is there any definition of conservatism I’ve seen yet that commits insanity in order to destroy another insanity. It would, as Allahpundit notes wryly, be the “end of the Republican Party” and “an economic collapse triggered by a Republican-driven federal default is slightly more likely to cause trouble for conservatives than voting to raise the ceiling in return for, say, a balanced-budget amendment or other heavy debt-reducing concessions.”

Thankfully, there are probably still enough adults in the GOP to deal with Mr. DeMint’s impulse control problem. But we have been put on notice: there is faction of the Republican Party that cares nothing about governing responsibly and would actually prefer to see the United States on its knees than give Congress a chance to begin to address our fiscal crisis responsibly. Why worry about the crazies in North Korea and Iran when we have our very own loony toons brigade of anarcho-politicos right here in the good old U.S.A.?

They are playing Russian Roulette with a slight variation in the rules; load five chambers with bullets while leaving only one empty and pull the trigger.

Good luck with that. The rest of us will pass, thanks.