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US senators' debt ceiling threat is destructive and hypocritical

May 26, 2023 at 12:00 a.m.

If America defaults on its debts sometime in the next few weeks or months -- wrecking the full faith and credit of the U.S. government and perhaps the world economy to boot -- Kansas and Missouri Republicans in Washington, D.C., will bear some measure of responsibility.

That might sound harsh, but it's absolutely true.

Three of the four U.S. senators who represent the Kansas City region -- Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall of Kansas, along with Missouri's Eric Schmitt -- last week joined a Republican pledge not to raise the national debt ceiling without "substantive spending and budget reforms."

"Our economy is in free fall due to unsustainable fiscal policies," the group of 43 GOP senators wrote. "This trajectory must be addressed with fiscal reforms. Moreover, recent Treasury projections have reinforced the urgency of addressing the debt ceiling. The House has taken a responsible first step in coming to the table with their proposals. It is imperative that the president now do the same."

If President Joe Biden doesn't agree to big cuts, the group said, they won't vote for cloture on any bill that raises the debt ceiling. That's essentially a promise to filibuster the nation into fiscal oblivion.

We can think of few more destructive -- or hypocritical -- threats by our elected officials.

Why destructive? Because hitting the debt ceiling would force the U.S. government to pare back the bills it pays, which would send shock waves throughout the economy and directly damage Americans who rely on the feds to support their retirement, medical bills and livelihoods. The Congressional Budget Office and Treasury Department estimate that if the government stopped paying bills, more than 500,000 Americans would lose their jobs in the first week.

Some of those Americans surely live in Kansas and Missouri.

"That is something that could produce financial chaos," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Monday. "It would drastically reduce the amount of spending and would mean that Social Security recipients and veterans and people counting on money from the government that they're owed, contractors, we just would not have enough money to pay the bills."

Why hypocritical? Because Republicans famously seem to care about federal debts and deficits only when Democrats are in the White House. Moran, the region's senior senator, exemplifies this tendency.

While Donald Trump was in office in 2017, Moran joined his fellow Republicans in supporting a massive tax cut even though it was expected at the time to add at least $1 trillion to the national debt. (Marshall and Schmitt, along with Missouri's Josh Hawley, had not yet been elected to the Senate.) Moran praised the bill as "fiscally responsible."

Ironically, Moran did vote earlier that year against raising the debt ceiling under Trump. But he also voted in 2018 and 2019 for budget bills that raised the limit. Hawley voted against that last bill.

There were no attempts to take the nation's credit worthiness hostage while a Republican was in charge, no willingness to play havoc with America's financial stability, no threats to wreck the economy. And no unrelated demands, like Hawley's attempt this week to link the debt ceiling to his demand for higher tariffs on China.

Forgive us, then, if we suspect the stance taken by Marshall, Moran and Schmitt has less to do with reining in the government's spending and more to do with inflicting political harm on a Democratic president.

The clock is ticking. Yellen says that without a new debt ceiling measure, America could start to default on its bills at the beginning of June. Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy met Tuesday afternoon to discuss the issue, but neither side expects a deal very soon.

That's a shame. Should the federal government tighten its belt? Perhaps. But the best way to accomplish that task is through the normal budget process, not through a high-stakes standoff that leaves Americans in terror for their own fiscal well-being.

This threatened disaster is a choice. If Kansas and Missouri voters end up muddling through "financial chaos" sometime soon, it will because their U.S. senators decided to allow it.

-- Kansas City Star, May 17

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