THE WASHINGTON POST published an article today about Republican Members of Congress who refuse to believe warnings that a failure to raise the federal debt ceiling will result in economic catastrophe for the United States. It doesn't faze them that credentialed economists, rating agencies, business leaders, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, top budget analysts, their own Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader and pretty much everyone who knows anything about this stuff say that the consequencs will be dire. As Representative Mo Brooks, a Republican from Alabama, told the Post, “There should be no default on August 2. In fact, our credit rating should be improved by not raising the debt ceiling.”
In the article, Representative Rick Crawford, a Republican from Arkansas, said he feels pressure from constituents not to vote for an increase in the debt limit. Asked if he has tried to explain to them the consequences of this course of action, Crawford said, “I think that’s probably an arrogant attitude to take, that I know more than they do. I’m trying to represent my district in Washington, and not Washington in my district.”
It's tough to be a leader. In a democracy that means representing your constituents' desires in the policy making arena. People like Mo Brooks and Rick Crawford (and several of the Republican Presidential candidates) are responding, it seems, to about a quarter of Americans, who, according to the Pew Research Center, believe there will be no consequence of failing to raise the debt ceiling.
Now, I'm all for ensuring that the ideas of even a minority should count for something in the marketplace of policy making. But don't our leaders at some point also have a responsibility to, well, lead and to tell The People what's up and what's down, especially on highly technical issues like this one? I mean, if 25 percent of our fellow Americans believe that the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, should we just take their word for it -- if that untruth were to have any bearing on the broader public interest?
Wait a minute, one may say, the rising of the sun is a scientifically proven phenomenon. The impact of the default of federal debt is really speculation. Yes, but, first of all, it's a fact that many who mind the global bond markets say those markets will almost certainly respond adversely if the U.S. defaults. And the rating agencies are threatening to downgrade U.S. credit, which will at the very least make it more costly for us as a nation to borrow.
Second, there are other scientific facts that many, particularly from the same segment of the U.S. ideological spectrum, have chosen to ignore to the detriment of the public interest. As I've written before, this willful ignorance extends to climate change and the theory of evolution, which are settled questions among a preponderance of people who really know what they're talking about. And it wasn't too long ago that John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, offered a tortured explanation as to why he won't try to disabuse many Americans of their belief that Barack Obama is a Muslim, even if he, John Boehner, doesn't share their view. I'm not surprised that some out there don't agree with the consensus; that's the way of the world. But it's discouraging, to say the least, to see our political leadership indulging such ignorance.
Some day, someone will be able to discern the extent to which this willful ignorance -- not just about the debt ceiling, but some of these other contentious issues -- began not with The People but with the leaders themselves. Really, before the debt ceiling debate began to dominate the news a few months ago, how many rank-and-file Americans knew much at all about the issue, let alone had an opinion about it? (Not me.) How is it that roughly so many Americans, according to Pew, got it in their heads that raising the debt ceiling would be bad and failure to do so would have no consequence? I'm not trying to insult anyone's intelligence, but this is something about which specialists have a bit more expertise than average Americans.
It's not "arrogant," Congressman Crawford, to tell your constituents sometime that you -- or the real experts -- know more than they do. That's part of your job as a leader.
Doesn't it seem plausible that, as they have so many times over the years, Republicans framed this particular issue in a way that would alarm and catalyze their base? They've done it on taxes and spending, crime, affirmative action, and other matters. The cap-and-trade legislation, for example, which passed the House and failed in the Senate two years ago, was re-branded by Republicans as a big "tax" and a potential drag on the economy (which was debatable, but far fetched), not as something we need to do to get a handle on the ill effects of massive carbon emissions into our atmosphere. The health reform legislation that President Obama championed was framed by Republicans as a scheme to make our expensive and fractured health care system more expensive and fractured. Up suddenly became down. East suddenly transformed itself into west. White became black, and the spectre of widespread economic disaster has become something not to worry about.
I have some admiration for Republicans' ability to pull off this cynical sleight of hand, except that talent of theirs has so distorted our public policy debates -- as is the case now -- led us to the brink of catastrophe. It's almost as if they wouldn't mind the catastrophe to visit the nation so long as it meant strenghening their own party's political fortunes.
One more anecdote, also from today's Washington Post, that reinforces how detached certain leaders seem to be from reality. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testified yesterday before the Senate Banking Committee, where two of the Committee members, Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), "pitched the idea that the government could avoid default simply by prioritizing debt payments over less important things, such as 'a reimbursement to a vendor or failing to cut the grass at the monuments,' Toomey said.
“'That would require us to stop paying almost half of our other bills,' Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. 'Isn’t that just default by another name?' he asked Bernanke, and then asked whether it would still result in a downgrade of the country’s credit.
“'Yes,' the Fed chief answered. 'I do not think this is a direction we want to go.'
But what does he know?