The most terrifying speech I ever wrote for President Obama was one he never gave. On July 30, 2011, I began drafting an address to the nation about what would happen if Congress refused to raise the debt limit within 48 hours, thus denying the United States Treasury the ability to pay our country’s bills for the first time in 235 years.
Suddenly, all of the administration’s warnings from the prior few weeks became real. Without enough cash on hand, the government would be forced to delay indefinitely Social Security checks, the ones our grandparents depend on to put food in their mouths and a roof over their heads. Veterans who served this country would stop receiving the benefits they earned, and the men and women in uniform risking their lives for us wouldn’t get paychecks.
Every company in America that does business with the federal government, of which there are hundreds of thousands, would not see their contracts paid on schedule, an effect that would ripple down to their employees and their families. With each passing day, making our debt payments to businesses and governments around the world would become more and more difficult. When the world stopped seeing the United States as a safe and reliable place to invest, the cost of borrowing money would skyrocket for every single American—whether it’s a home mortgage or a personal credit card. And those high borrowing costs, coupled with billions in delayed income for seniors, soldiers, small-business owners, and their employees, almost surely would send our economy and the world’s into a crisis even deeper and more dramatic than the Great Recession of 2009.
Fortunately, the draft speech never left my computer screen. The next day, at the last possible moment, the House of Representatives voted to provide the Treasury with the ability to pay our bills. But their decision to negotiate at the brink, under a dark cloud of uncertainty, still led to real economic damage: the stock market had the worst single day since the 2008 financial crisis, plunging 635 points. Billions in higher borrowing costs were added to the national debt. Economic growth slowed. Job growth slowed. And for the very first time, the United States lost its triple-A credit rating.
The obvious lesson from this entirely self-inflicted fiasco is never, ever to treat America’s bill-paying authority as a bargaining chip in political negotiations. The president has learned this lesson. House Republicans have not. And so, incredibly—insanely—we find ourselves a few weeks away from the same self-inflicted fiasco just two years later.
Part of the reason, I think, has to do with the dull and confusing language we use to talk about this issue. Who the hell knows what raising the debt limit really means, anyway? While not in any way true, a higher debt ceiling sounds like a green light to pile up more debt. It suggests the authority to engage in more spending and borrowing. So when a pollster asks people whether raising the debt limit should accompany a negotiation over more spending cuts, of course they’ll say yes! If the pollster adds “even if it risks default,” many people will still say yes, because what the hell does “default” mean? It may sound vaguely threatening, but certainly not as frightening as the scenario I described in the draft 2011 speech.
Contrast all that confusion with the phrase “government shutdown.” People generally know what a government shutdown looks like. We have historical context, as it’s happened before. We can visualize closed buildings and offices; services halted and benefits withheld. And by a healthy majority, the American people do not support the House Republicans’ latest attempt to put us through a government shutdown just so they can deny affordable health insurance to the sick and poor for one more year.
Well, a failure to raise the debt limit would inflict far more pain on far more people than a government shutdown. Breaching the debt limit would trigger an economic shutdown of epic proportions. The president used that phrase, “economic shutdown,” in a speech last week. He should keep using it. The White House should say it every day, as should everyone who wants to avoid such a calamity. Because it happens to be true.
A vote to raise the debt limit will not cost taxpayers a single dime. A vote to raise the debt limit will not grow our deficit by a single dime. A vote to raise the debt limit will not give the president or Congress the ability to spend any new money whatsoever. These are incontrovertible facts. A failure to raise the debt limit, however, will lead to an economic shutdown that will cause financial hardship and even ruin for millions of Americans. This, too, is an incontrovertible fact.
Republicans are still whining about Dan Pfeiffer’s analogy that compared their list of debt-ceiling demands to someone negotiating with a bomb strapped to their chest. Perhaps they prefer Mitch McConnell’s 2011 declaration that the global economy is a “hostage that’s worth ransoming.” Either way, the Republicans should help us more aptly describe a situation where they demand we accept their ideological agenda in exchange for not wreaking havoc on our lives.
“The president must negotiate!” Really? Because in most negotiations, both sides stand to gain something. In this negotiation, the House Republicans get to pass policies on which Mitt Romney ran and lost, while the president gets to live in a country that isn’t suffering from yet another economic calamity, a country that isn’t seen as the world’s superpower turned deadbeat nation. How wonderful for him. What a shining example of bipartisan cooperation to be celebrated by the Washington media.
What a joke.
From budgets and taxes to Syria and Iran, this president has shown that he will negotiate on almost any issue, with anyone, at any time. But he will not—he cannot—negotiate with a roving band of anarchists who say, “Build our oil pipeline or the troops don’t get paid. Give us tax cuts for the rich or seniors don’t get their Social Security checks. Let insurance companies do as they please or the economy gets it.”
That isn’t democracy. That isn’t America. Throughout history, politicians of both parties have been able to argue their agendas fiercely, even nastily, but then accept the Election Day judgment of voters without resorting to extortion that threatens the economic destruction of their own country. A small faction of Republicans who represent an even smaller fraction of Americans has now decided to reject this bipartisan legacy in favor of nihilistic madness. As citizens, we can call on our president to give in to their demands, thereby setting a precedent that will permanently and fundamentally alter the nature of our democracy for future leaders of both parties. Or we can finally call these people what McConnell once gleefully acknowledged they are: hostage takers, unrepresentative of the once-proud Republican Party and unfit to govern the greatest nation on Earth.