Commentary Magazine


Another Debt Standoff? Let Voters Decide

House Speaker John Boehner is being blamed for setting the stage for a repeat of last summer’s debt ceiling crisis. In a speech, Boehner vowed that he wouldn’t go along with raising the amount of money the government can borrow to cover its debts unless Congress passed more spending cuts. An anguished chorus of Democrats predicting woe to the economy if another debt deadlock drama threatened the nation’s credit rating greeted this promise. The battle lines between the parties on the budget are still seemingly set in stone. Republicans, rightly in my view, don’t believe taxes that will harm an already sinking economy should be raised to allow the government to spend more money that it doesn’t have. Democrats prefer to play the class warfare card about taxing the rich but are still not prepared to contemplate the fundamental reform of entitlements that are drowning the nation in debt.

This means sooner or later there will be another Capitol Hill confrontation in which the two sides will seek to stand on their principles while demanding their opponents give up theirs for the sake of good government. If Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is to be believed, that next round won’t take place before the November election, because he said the government has the “tools” to keep the ship of state afloat until early next year. Let’s hope he’s right, because the answer to this stalemate won’t be found in the posturing of the parties or the somewhat disingenuous pious calls of President Obama for compromise. The only solution to this problem is to have an election.

What’s wrong about much of the rhetoric used in the debt ceiling debate is the presumption that the two parties are not offering clear choices. Rather than spend another summer badgering each other to act in a manner contrary to the promises they made the voters, what the parties need to do is to simply go to the people and ask for a mandate. While such a standoff in a parliamentary system would result in the government’s fall and new elections, our Constitution requires that we wait until the next federal election for the same remedy.

The current situation is the result of having a House of Representatives that was produced by the Republican landslide in 2010 and a Senate with two-thirds of its members who were elected in the Democratic years of 2006 and 2008 when they also had one of their number elevated to the White House. What is needed this year is a clear answer from the electorate in which they choose a Congress and a president of the same party who can then put into effect the budget and spending plans they campaigned on.

It is possible that in November the voters will duplicate this unhappy situation by re-electing President Obama along with a Republican Congress. It is also possible, though less likely, that a President Romney will be faced with at least one chamber controlled by the Democrats. If that happens, then it will be time to talk compromise again, as it will not be possible for both sides to have their way.

But until that happens, it would be far better if we heard less talk in Washington about letting the “adults” set the agenda. That’s just another way of saying that we must continue with business as usual and put off making any decisions about reforming the system. While the DC establishment deprecates the efforts of some members and activists to put an end to the governing class merely dividing the spoils, calls for bipartisanship on the budget is merely a cover for avoiding fundamental change.

The two sides of the political aisle have competing visions about how we should operate the government. Romney laid down a marker on this issue yesterday with a speech in Iowa about the “prairie fire of debt” spreading through the nation while the president hasn’t let up with his calls for taxing the rich (even though that won’t do a thing to solve the budget tangle). Instead of pressuring those elected to stand up for one of those visions and betray the voters who sent them to Washington, it’s time to tell the voters to choose. That is the only and the best solution to any political deadlock.

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