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The Debt Ceiling – Another Shakespearian Tragedy

Boehner, Obama (Contrib size/ AP photo)

President Barack Obama speaks with Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) during debt ceiling negotiations at the White House on July 23, 2011. (Getty Images)

The heavily dramatized debt ceiling negotiations are a lot like a Shakespearian play, with Washington as the stage and the Republican and Democrats as the actors.  One problem – the production is less of a comedy and more of a tragedy.

The debt ceiling brinkmanship that graces our televisions night after night amounts to the Republican and Democrats’ rendition of Romeo and Juliet.

The opening scene of the 14th century tragedy depicts a street brawl between two feuding families, the Capulets and the Montague’s, much like what we see transpire in the halls of Congress between the Republicans and Democrats.

But as two families – or in Congress’ case, two parties—feud, their children, Romeo and Juliet, commit suicide.  It is only after these tragic events that the families end their violent quarrel and reconcile.

This, in a nutshell, is the course our debt ceiling “negotiations” repeatedly run. Two vying parties engage in partisan warfare, one side arguing revenues is the solution to our debt and the other, spending cuts.

But the fighting is to no avail because we end up with empty promises of future spending cuts and insignificant revenue increases – neither of which do anything in the way of meaningfully trimming our debt.  As in Romeo and Juliet, the collateral damage is our children, doomed to drown in debt and pay for the mistakes of their parents.

This is the sad tale we have seen all six times President Obama and Congress raised the debt ceiling.

August 2, 2011, is a prime example, the day Congress passed the Budget Control Act (BCA).  Republicans agreed to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for a set of multipart mechanisms aimed at reducing federal spending.

Here are just a few of the do-nothing elements of that compromise.

Meaningless Promise #1:  BCA required Congress to vote on a Balanced Budget Amendment.  Surprise, surprise. On November 18, 2011, the Republican House voted down the balanced budget amendment.

Meaningless Promise #2: BCA created the “super committee,” tasked with developing a proposal to cut $1.2 trillion.  In typical inefficient, unproductive fashion this government body issued the following statement on November 21, 2011: “After months of hard work and intense deliberations, we have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline."

Meaningless Promise #3: The consequence of the committee not coming to agreement was automatic spending cuts and tax hikes set to kick in on January 1, 2013.  But on the night of January 1st, Congress passed a bill averting these spending cuts.

Taken together, the BCA was nothing more than a sham or a façade.  All of the spending cuts and saving mechanisms put in place never happened, and Congress, once again, raised the debt ceiling with reckless disregard for our accumulating debt.

This week, the stage is set once again for another debt ceiling battle.  Fear not, though, another worthless compromise will save the day!

In exchange for extending the debt ceiling for three months, Republicans are demanding that Congress pass a budget by April 15th or else lawmakers will go forgo their pay.  Boehner vows that this budget will balance the books in ten years.  Respectfully, Mr. Speaker, we’ll believe it when we see it.

In reality, the Republican House will pass a symbolic budget with no realistic chance of passing the Senate, and the Democratic Senate will pass a symbolic budget with no realistic chance of passing the House. In the end, America will be left deeper in the red, and this compromise will meet the same fate as the BCA – it will fall by the wayside, becoming nothing more than a symbolic gesture to placate the Republican’s base.

So, America’s debt ceiling increases once again with zero spending cuts to accompany it.  Like in Romeo and Juliet, America keeps having this feud, all the while not realizing that their children’s future is quite literally at stake.

In Romeo and Juliet, death ultimately reconciled the two feuding families.  Perhaps it will take fiscal death for the Republicans and Democrats to acknowledge the gravity of our situation. But we should make every effort to avert this, for it is a burden too big to leave to our children.  Perhaps the closing line to Romeo and Juliet is most appropriate if we continue down the broken path we are on.

"For never was a story of more woe.  Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."


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