Port: Republicans would like you to believe they care about the national debt again

"Debt ceiling showdowns aren't a mechanism for exacting spending concessions and imposing discipline. They're performances. An opportunity to entertain the rubes, drink liberal tears, etc., etc."

U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C.
The Capitol dome is seen at sunset on Election Day, in Washington, Nov. 6, 2018.
(Sarah Silbiger/Copyright 2018 The New York Times)

MINOT, N.D. — Back in 2011, when a Republican-controlled House refused to raise the debt ceiling to force significant spending concessions from then-President Barack Obama, I supported the move. The Republicans were still riding the wave of the Tea Party movement and it seemed, at the time, that true-blue fiscal conservatives such as Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina were finally serious about getting federal spending under control.

The chaos of a government shutdown seemed like a shock the system needed to get our financial house in order.

If only.

Flash forward to 2019, and Mulvaney had moved from Congress to the executive branch, serving as chief of staff in a Trump administration that had, at the time, presided over the addition of $4.7 trillion in national debt . Remember, that was before the pandemic era. By the time Donald Trump left office, we'd added about $8.2 trillion to our national debt, ballooning it by more than 40% .

Support for Trump has, ironically, become a litmus test for conservative purity among a certain faction of Republicans, yet the disgraced former president saw more added to our national debt in four years than Obama did in eight.


When Trump's 2019 State of the Union address was being previewed to Republican members of Congress, some questioned why he wasn't talking about the national debt.

"Nobody cares," Mulvaney reportedly told them .

Mulvaney wasn't the only one singing that tune at the time.

“Nobody is a fiscal conservative anymore," no less a conservative icon than Rush Limbaugh said during a radio broadcast that same year . "All this talk about concern for the deficit and the budget has been bogus for as long as it's been around."

Sometimes a non-answer is still an answer.
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This week the U.S. Treasury announced that they'd be taking "extraordinary measures" to keep paying the nation's bills as we near the congressionally set limit on America's credit card. Only, there's nothing "extraordinary" about measures resorted to every year or so. The Treasury Department has had to do this seven times, including the 2011 debt ceiling standoff, because, as Mulvaney said, nobody actually cares about the national debt.

Debt ceiling showdowns aren't a mechanism for exacting spending concessions and imposing discipline. They're performances. An opportunity to entertain the rubes, drink liberal tears , etc., etc.

That this brinksmanship has real consequences for our nation and the world is a fact that gets lost as the politicians, who mostly do nothing meaningful to rein in spending and address budget shortfalls, rush to Twitter and cable news cameras to express righteous indignation about the debt problem.

If we hit the debt ceiling, and run out of "extraordinary measures," the country will no longer be able to pay its creditors . America's status as a financial safe harbor, as the most stable and reliable debtor in the world, would be wounded. That's not just a symbolic thing. Our national credit rating could be downgraded, making future borrowing and debt service more expensive.


Which is how it works on a personal level, too. Starting missing credit card payments, your credit rating goes down, and your interest rates go up.

Defaulting on our debt problems is the opposite of fiscal conservatism. It solves nothing, and makes matters worse.

Even if we stipulate that the Republicans pushing for a government shutdown are serious about taking on deficit spending and not just out to own the libs , these debt ceiling showdowns are not the way to effect real change.

What's needed are incremental reforms to spending , and a willingness to take on the politically thorny task of addressing nondiscretionary spending on programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which comprise the bulk of our national budget.

Who was the last Republican leader to talk about that sort of thing seriously? Former Speaker Paul Ryan? A man who was all but drummed out of the GOP in the Trump era ?

We need significant spending cuts. Or tax hikes. Almost certainly some of both. But all we're getting from Republicans, who are supposedly the counterpoint to those profligates in the Democratic party, are debt ceiling showdowns egged on by nihilists like Trump and his acolytes in Congress who care little about solving the problem and a great deal about spectacle.

Meanwhile, the Democrats barely even pretend to care about our debt problem.

We have a desperate need for serious, sober leadership that will make some tough decisions about the federal budget.


If any of you see someone like that in Congress, let me know.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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