The president’s radio address this weekend was dedicated to promoting the (still controversial) Affordable Care Act and hitting the House Republicans for the way in which they intend to oppose it. The president’s framing of the issue was dishonest in two respects.
First, he insists that if there is a government shutdown, it will be the Republicans’ choice and thus their fault. The Senate has passed a budget that will simply fund the government, the president observes, but the House is going to pass a funding measure that also includes a delay of the implementation of the Health Care Act. This means that both the Senate and the House want to fund the government. It is just that the House wants to fund it and do something else, which the Senate is not willing to do. For this the president labels the Republicans “extremists.” That is more than a little strange, since the additional thing they want–delay of Obamacare–is something that a majority of Americans also want. How can you be an extremist when representing public opinion? Unless the public itself has gone mad, resisting the great boon that is the Affordable Care Act. In any case, it should be obvious to anyone who pauses to reflect dispassionately on this impasse that the fault for it can be assigned to either side or both sides. To avert a government shutdown, the Senate could pass the House bill and the president could sign it.
Second, the president criticizes the House Republicans for planning to attach conditions to the debt ceiling increase that will have to take place later this fall. He suggests that they are planning to force an economically devastating default on America’s debt if they can’t get their way on other issues which they plan to attach to the debt ceiling increase. But the truth of the matter is different from the president’s partisan presentation, in more than one way. As with the possible government shutdown, responsibility would really lie with both sides. The Democrats in the Senate and the president could avert a failure to raise the debt ceiling by agreeing to the version of the debt-ceiling increase passed by the House Republicans.
Additionally, it is not the case, as the president suggests, that failing to increase the debt limit would necessarily mean a default on America’s debt. It would mean, instead, that government spending would have to be cut in order to pay the existing debt. The president tries to obscure this distinction by saying that raising the debt limit is necessary to paying all the bills that Congress has already racked up. That presentation treats promised government spending and existing debt as of equal moral obligation.
Think of two sets of parents, Smith and Jones. The Smith parents cancel this year’s planned faction because they think they can’t afford it. The Jones parents refuse to pay the credit card bills for last year’s vacation because they think they can’t afford it. According to Obama’s rhetoric, both sets of parents are guilty of the same injustice. But anyone should be able to see that this is not the case. Not paying your debts is an injustice, while changing your mind about a planned expenditure is not. Congress has a right to revise its spending plan, but does not have a right to default on its debt. The president, however, tries to present both as a kind of morally culpable default.