Political Animal


July 18, 2011 3:50 PM The Pay America’s Bills Act

By Steve Benen

Maybe the political world has been going about this all wrong. Everyone refers to the “debt ceiling” or “debt limit,” giving the public the impression that supporting a higher ceiling is necessarily fiscal irresponsible. If you want less debt, the reasoning goes, you should want a limit that doesn’t go up.

But this is misleading. Raising the ceiling means giving the United States the ability to pay its bills — it refers to money we already owe now, not in the future.

Even politicians find this confusing. Tanya Somanader flags this gem from Rep. Todd Rokita (R) of Indiana, who said he’ll oppose any debt-limit increase, no matter what’s in it, even if it means “the economy might get worse.”

“We’ll learn to live within our means right now, in the here and now. And this might force that issue even if the economy does or the stock market does go down, the economy might get worse. The economy is terrible it’s been terrible for years now, and the reason it’s bad is not because of a debt-ceiling vote. The reason it’s bad is because we have people who believe that by making government bigger by keeping people on unemployment checks and on welfare we’re going to dig us out of this mess.”

He added, “We don’t deserve to have our credit limit raised.”

Now, all available evidence suggests Rokita just isn’t especially bright, and his views on economic growth can be charitably described as unique.

But his point is worth reemphasizing: Rokita believes failure on the debt limit would be a good thing because we’ll immediately start “living within our means.” Sure, the economy might crash, but that’s all right, he believes, because (a) conditions are already pretty rough; and (b) “living within our means” is more important than the health of the economy.

After all, we “don’t deserve to have our credit limit raised.”

If I had to guess, Rokita seems to perceive the debt ceiling as being comparable to a credit card limit. The bank tells us we can use our credit card and charge what we want, but there’s a maximum. If we reach that predetermined limit, we use a different card have to start cutting back.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here. For people like the Indiana congressman, maybe it’s time to stop calling this the “debt ceiling” and start calling it “The Pay America’s Bills Act.” After all, that’s what raising the limit does — it gives us the ability to pay for things we’ve already bought. This isn’t our credit card limit; this is our credit card bill.

Republicans used to understand this. Indeed, none other than Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) explained just last year, “You don’t have much choice if you charge something on your credit card. You have to pay it, and that’s effectively what this debt limit is…. [W]e’ve already spent the money. The question is now, do we shut down the government, or do we fund what we’ve already done?”

DeMint, of course, is now leading the crusade to force a national default, abandoning the line he took less than a year ago — he’s not especially bright, either — but the point is, those far-right lawmakers looking at this as a “credit limit” don’t understand what they’re saying. By Aug. 2, the country will either be able to pay its bills or it won’t. If radicalized Republicans reject an increase in the ceiling, they’re rejecting the nation’s abilities to pay for what we’ve already bought.

Rokita believes we “don’t deserve” to pay our bills. That’s just madness.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • kevo on July 18, 2011 4:01 PM:

    All who would want default give evidence to Zappa's observation that stupidity is the most abundant element in the universe, even though scientists have proclaimed hydrogen to be! -Kevo

  • T2 on July 18, 2011 4:02 PM:

    "people on unemployment checks and on welfare"
    that says pretty much all you need to know about this GOPer creep. And about Conservativism in general.....Blacks and Browns out to steal our money....and damn if they didn't somehow elect one of their own as president--we need to take our country back from the black guy and quit paying these beggars all our taxes.
    All the Tea Party amounts to is a "get away with spouting the racist crap you used to be unable to say in public" card.

  • Cliff on July 18, 2011 4:03 PM:

    Maybe the political world has been going about this all wrong.

    With two weeks to go before the Econopocalypse, it's a little late to begin pondering the terminology we are using.
    Just like it's a little late to begin wondering if maybe the Republicans really are batshit insane.

  • c u n d gulag on July 18, 2011 4:09 PM:

    IS there one, ONE, motherf*cker on that side of the aisle who has an IQ higher than a retarded Cocker Spanial?


    If so, where is he/she hiding? They should stick out like a diamond in a Lancaster mine.

  • Danp on July 18, 2011 4:10 PM:

    we “don’t deserve to have our credit limit raised.”

    Well, duh. We cut our income by trillions. We splurged on wars and drugs, while cutting back on real estate insurance. Maybe what we need is a new kind of Daddy.

  • bardgal on July 18, 2011 4:14 PM:

    The language of the 14th is clear - CONGRESS MUST ENFORCE (America to pay it's bills.) There is no "Choice" on the debt ceiling - even if there are some members of the House who are too stupid to realize it. If they don't vote to raise it - (it shouldn't even exist) they can be removed from office for dereliction of duty and charged with willfully endangering the economic well-being of the US, which is also a National Security threat.

    Obama is working the biggest Rope-A-Dope of all time, while educating the masses on how the economy works, and forcing the GOP to reveal how insane and ignorant they are all at the same time. Masterful.

  • blondie on July 18, 2011 4:14 PM:

    Maybe he's been smoking a few lacyweeds.

    (h/t to Captcha!)

  • RD Padouk on July 18, 2011 4:15 PM:

    I enthusiastically agree that bad terminology is making this problem far worse. I can't count the number of people who think this vote is to raise the credit limit on America's credit card instead of just signing the card for stuff we've already bought. And just to keep things formal, maybe we call it "Authorization to honor spending commitments." Or does that have too many syllables?

  • r on July 18, 2011 4:15 PM:

    Here's another thing we should do:
    Stop calling it raising taxes, and start pointing out that Obama's seeking to end government handouts to the rich. Well, some of the handouts.

  • JEA on July 18, 2011 4:21 PM:

    The bar for running for the House of Representatives is lot lower than I even thought possible.

  • AngryOldVet on July 18, 2011 4:24 PM:

    Todd Rokita is a made man in the repuklican mob!

    He made his bones as a participant in the Brooks Brothers riots that shut down the 2000 recount in Florida.

    As a made man, the requirements are that he keep mouthing the 30 second republican sound bites and that he votes as told by the party leadership.

    Intelligence is not a requirement. Knowledge is not a requirement and is probably viewed as a negative. He fits right in the mold of Indiana repuke politicians.

  • PTate in MN on July 18, 2011 4:25 PM:

    Maybe rather than talking about "raising the debt ceiling" we should refer to a vote to "stay fiscally responsible" or "keep America creditworthy."

  • Archon on July 18, 2011 4:28 PM:

    The Republicans have been so badly outmanuevered and exposed as frauds on this issue it's almost surreal. Now I'm not naive enough to suggest that this will change a lot of low information voters on how bankrupt the Republican party is but at least the media is slowly starting to get rid of the false equivalencies between the parties.

  • Old Uncle Dave on July 18, 2011 4:37 PM:

    Since there won't be any money for the armed forces to send out paychecks if the ceiling isn't raised, the Republicans can be accused of not supporting the troops.

  • mac on July 18, 2011 4:47 PM:

    Nice Steve! A "Pay America's Bills" amendment is a nice counter punch to the faux "Balanced Budget" amendment of the Repugs.

  • Michael on July 18, 2011 4:58 PM:

    When Rokita was Indiana Secretary of State (wince) he wrote the first "Voter Photo ID" bill, which survived the Supreme Court and has become the template for the blizzard of "voter suppression" bills being passed this year across the country. He's been working this a long time.

    Rather than assume these GOPers are stupid, maybe we should be assuming they know what they want and then try to figure out how to stop it. Currently, I think they want the collapse of Medicare, Medicaid (especially) and Social Security Privatization (for the benefit of stockbrokers everywhere), and see this Disaster Capitalism approach as the way to achieve it.

  • mr.irony on July 18, 2011 5:04 PM:

    republicans raised the rnc's debt limit last jan..

    due to more than 20-million in debt..

    but they draw the line at america's debt limit...

    gop 2011: party over country..


  • exlibra on July 18, 2011 5:12 PM:

    [...] all available evidence suggests Rokita just isn’t especially bright [...] -- Steve Benen

    And here I've always been told that the Devil is a very smart SOB... ("Rokita" is one of the many euphemisms for Devil. A bit like the English "Old Nick". It's safer not to call the critter by his real name)

    "west cyclede". Nonsense. There's no movement in *any* direction. Not even if you're on a bike.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on July 18, 2011 6:12 PM:

    The debt ceiling, if a credit card metaphor is to be used, is more like a voluntary credit limit. So now that the U.S. has spent more than that voluntary amount, Republicans are saying it's OK to just not pay the bills.

  • Brian on July 18, 2011 6:16 PM:

    I'm going to only pay 60% of my rent to my Landlord this month instead of having to transfer money from different accounts; my defense in court against the eviction will be that i'm simply "living within my means". Hope the judge is a member of the GOP.

  • David Martin on July 18, 2011 7:13 PM:

    Here is Congressman Bill Posey of Florida, whose district includes Cape Canaveral. The source is an email in response to my urging him to vote to increase the debt limit:

    "...I also take issue with some suggestions from the Administration that Congress must rush through an increase of the debt limit or incur an immediate default on bondholders. While the Treasury would certainly face competing obligations without the ability to issue additional debt it would for some time continue to receive some tax revenues and have discretion in holding off the payments for less urgent spending. Paying bondholders should be a top priority, as any default would significantly raise interest rates, causing even more financial challenges.

    I introduced H.R. 1140, legislation to require the Treasury, should we reach the debt limit, to service the debt (to avoid default) and to pay Social Security benefits. It is my view that reaching the debt limit need not jeopardize our commitments to seniors or the stability of our economy and financial markets."

  • JoeW on July 18, 2011 7:48 PM:

    How about a "Pay for Bush's wars tax"?

  • PEA on July 18, 2011 9:02 PM:

    So we're driving a car that we bought with a loan, but even though we want to keep driving the car (which we need to keep our job, take our kids to school, get to the doctor, etc), we won't make any more loan payments because we decided to "reduce our credit limit" and "reduce our spending." They'll be reduced all right -- but not the way we have in mind, and if our wages are garnisheed (if we don't lose our job when the car is reposessed and we can't make it to work), we might not have any $ for food, doctors, clothes, etc. Hello?! Anybody home?!

  • Kathryn on July 18, 2011 10:34 PM:

    Well folks, I just saw John Stanton from the Hill Newspaper on Rachel Maddow and it seems that the GOP leadership team of Boehner and Cantor (leaderless team?) is finding that their lunatics are becoming more, not less, entrenched in their delusions that a default is just what the doctor ordered. As a result, they (B&C) are playing more games with balanced budget amendments, etc, in Congress to lull their members into going along with the Reid/McConnell crap compromise. Yeah, that'll work. If your hair is not on fire yet, it will be. Boehner and Cantor even brought in some one from former Bush the elder's team to convince the moron party about seriousness of raising the debt ceiling and THEY DIDN'T BELIEVE HIM because, wait for it, wait for it, Bush Sr. raised taxes. Default here we come.

    Does anybody know if there is any damn chance of Obama using the 14th Amendment? If not, I believe we're screwed. Boehner allowed a vote on light bulbs and couldn't get it through, he's the worst speaker in history and smarmy Cantor should be hung in effigy.

  • ameshall on July 18, 2011 11:52 PM:

    Duh. As many here have said before, the GOP has benefited greatly from the public's gross misunderstanding of the debt ceiling, a misunderstanding that has existed for MONTHS. The burden to set the record straight on the debt ceiling (i.e., to make clear that the debt ceiling applies to those debts already racked up by George W. Bush and his predecessors) fell on the Democrats, and once again they failed miserably. The Democrats should have been making this point every day in every media outlet from the first day the debt ceiling became a contested issue. But they didn't and, once again, they're stuck scrambling at the last minute. It's beyond pathetic.

  • bardgal on July 19, 2011 1:46 AM:

    Someone from some congressional LAW office needs to come explain to the Norquist Cult Babies™ what their job description is, and what the word SEDITION means, and it's illegality, and how it applies to willfuly destroying the US economy - espeically at a time of war - not that that should matter - and their conflict of interest, nad sedition in signing a loyalty pledge to their non-elected, annointed King Norquist

    They should also point out clearly the wording of the 14th - CONGRESS SHALL ENFORCE (America to pay her bills) - meaning they can't pass the buck on this one without dereliction of duty - which means they could and should be romoved from office immediately.

    Even McConnell's ONLY PRIMARY OBJECTIVE to make Obama a one-term POTUS is beyond destructive to the country, and clearly in conflict with his oath of office, not to mention having his priorities completely broken.

  • MBoss on July 27, 2011 5:05 PM:

    The government can keep raising the debt ceiling in order to meet payment obligations, but raising the debt ceiling means printing more money - which leads to inflation. There is no easy path back to a balanced budget.