On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, addressed the opening session of the newly elected 113th Congress. In addition to offering all the traditional niceties, he paid tribute to the historical significance of the moment by invoking the Founding Fathers and reminding the members of their duty to carry on the legacy of representative government by serving with humility and determination.
He also referenced the oath of office that he was about to take as the re-elected speaker of the House – third in line to the presidency – and would then administer to his 434 colleagues, observing that it contained “no reference to agendas or platforms.”
Boehner and McConnell Set the Agenda
After which, the speaker instantaneously proceeded to map out his own party’s political agenda and platform for the immediate future in metaphorical terms: “Our national debt is draining free enterprise and weakening the ship of state … break its hold, and we begin to set our economy free.”
Meanwhile, Speaker Boehner’s Senate counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was making the same point on the other side of the Capitol, albeit less poetically: “Democrats now have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to join Republicans in a serious effort to reduce Washington’s out-of-control spending. … We have an immediate opportunity to act: the debt ceiling.”
So much for the niceties.
Republican leaders have now made it perfectly clear what sort of political battle we should expect to witness in the coming weeks: Since they have “given in” on taxes, they intend to grind in their heels and make the next fight about government spending. Cut spending now, they aver, or we will once again take the country to the economic brink, just like we did in 2011, when we held the debt ceiling hostage until the very last minute.
As a reminder, the debt ceiling is the legal limit the government is allowed to borrow. It is currently set at $16.394 trillion, and it needs to be upped slightly — by mid-February at the latest — so that money can be borrowed to pay debts already acquired. The current national debt is $16.432 trillion.
Raising the debt ceiling has traditionally been a non-controversial and necessary matter of fiscal sanity – without enough money to pay its bills, however they were incurred, the United States government would default on its obligations, throwing the world economy into what most believe would be a hard-to-control panic with detrimental results, including a downgrading of the country’s credit rating, which would subsequently make future borrowing even more expensive.
Another Messy Encounter is on its Way
President Obama was adamant in his first-round counterpunch in this new bout of Beltway fisticuffs: “While I will negotiate over many things, I will not have another debate with this Congress about whether or not they should pay the bills they have already racked up.”
So, for those of you who enjoyed watching the stomach-churning ride our elected officials took all the way to the brim of the “fiscal cliff,” don’t change those dials. The worst is yet to come.