Negotiating the debt with terrorists
In threatening to block a debt limit increase, Republicans are playing a dangerous hand
Hostage-takers are rarely trustworthy in negotiations, which the White House well knows. (Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash)
A small band of radical Palestinian gunmen attacked the Saudi embassy in Khartoum in March of 1973. They took 10 hostages, including the United States ambassador to Sudan and two other Western diplomats. At a press conference the next day, President Richard Nixon was asked how his administration would win the captives’ release, and he replied — seemingly off the cuff — that America would not negotiate with terrorists.
Twelve hours later, the terrorists took the three westerners into the embassy’s basement and shot them to death.
Despite that awful outcome, the U.S. has since then maintained an official policy of not negotiating with terrorists, a notion that has become a sort of line in the sand of our foreign policy — because, the argument goes, giving in to a terrorist’s demand for negotiation only invites more terror.It’s a stance now studied in the negotiation training that’s part of the standard curriculum in American business schools and international studies programs.
Which brings us to Kevin McCarthy and the right-wing radicals who now narrowly hold power in the U.S. House of Representatives. When the federal debt hit $31.4 trillion this week, the government reached the legal limit of how much money it can borrow to pay its bills. For weeks, McCarthy’s band has been insisting that it won’t authorize increasing that debt limit — which would let the government pay for spending Congress already has authorized — unless the Democrats who lead the U.S. Senate and hold the White House give in to their demands to cut some yet-unspecified future spending.
That is, Republicans are demanding negotiations with the White House by taking the federal budget hostage. Actually, it’s worse than that: We’re all hostages. If the House Republicans hold firm to their demands, the government that is at the center of the world’s economy — where global investors turn as a safe haven when all other investments are at risk — won’t be able to pay its bills. That would mean the full faith and credit of the United States would no longer underlie the debt, which would surely throw global markets into turmoil and provoke economic chaos that would cost untold billions of dollars. “The consequences of default are unthinkable,” former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told CBS News this week.
This may sound familiar, because congressional leaders and presidents have previously used either the debt limit increase or federal spending bills as negotiating tools. As a result, parts of the federal government have shut down 21 times over the past 40 years — most recently, in 2019, over a $5.7-billion appropriation demanded by President Donald Trump to build hundreds of miles of border wall.Shutdowns always hurt the economy and the families of hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal workers. Voters don’t like that; they usually take some revenge on whichever side fails to get its message across, and so draws the blame for the impasse.
The shutdown over the wall, however, arose from a dispute over future spending, not over paying bills that the government had already run up. A debt limit increase is only about Congress meeting its fundamental obligation to pay its bills, which is surely why it didn’t used to be a cause for crisis. Since 1960s, Congress has authorized debt limit increases in 78 votes — 29 times under Democratic presidents and 49 times under Republican presidents, including three times during the Trump presidency, as Lew told CBS. That’s not surprising: Most of us consider paying our bills to be a matter of simple good behavior.
In fact, it’s only when there’s a Democrat in the White House that the debt limit becomes a convenient weapon. One might fairly conclude that Republicans hope to cloud the issue in voters’ minds, so that paying the debt is seen as the other side of the spending equation. Rep. James Comer, the Kentucky Republican who has vowed to be a thorn in President Biden’s side as chair of the House Oversight Committee, told CNN last week that Democrats “have to recognize the fact that we’re not going to budge until we see meaningful reform with respect to spending.”
Just what that spending reform means isn’t clear, which is one of the reasons the stakes seem higher now than when other debt limit arguments arose. That is, we may not know what House Republicans want, but we know from McCarthy’s battle for the speakership that the extremists who now hold him in their clutches are willing to risk blowing things up to get their way. With the world economy still fragile in the aftermath of a pandemic, the radicals at the speaker’s side are especially and unsurprisingly feared.
Assuming good intentions on the part of the McCarthyites might invite more understanding of their frustration. Their slender five-vote majority in the House was no mandate for action from voters, who entrusted the Senate and the White House to Democrats. That leaves serious Republican lawmakers few options to achieve their policy goals.
But what might those goals be? Mostly, we hear Republicans taking aim at Joe Biden — and, of course, his family, as if he had installed them as key White House advisers with important policy portfolios. (Whoops! That was the last president, not this one.) Voters don’t support today’s top Republican talking points, like targeting LGBTQ Americans and non-European immigrants. It’s not that there aren’t serious issues that find their way into Republican officials’ campaigns, including the demand that the government address crime and immigration. But a turn to the Republican caucus for solutions to those talking points yields — well, mostly silence, and certainly no feasible policy proposals.
Sometimes it can be justifiable for a politician to take a bold position that might seem utterly offensive to the other side. A stance that some people consider extreme — like, in this case, threatening to push the United States into default in order to make a point on spending — might even be morally defensible if it is motivated by conscience. But if the conscience of conservatives compels action on annual federal deficits, why did no one take that moral high ground during the Trump presidency?
In fact, the national debt jumped by $7.8 trillion during Trump’s single term, driven by a lack of serious spending restraint and the 2017 tax law changes that primarily benefited richer Americans. The Trump debt burden — which will weigh down our grandchildren and their grandchildren — rose to unprecedented heights with bipartisan votes to hike the debt limit long before the nation confronted the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. It grew at a rate compared to the size of the overall economy that was seen only twice before in our history: after the Civil War and during the tenure of George W. Bush, who used debt rather than taxes to finance wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So who will blink in the coming confrontation? In recent days, there has been talk among Republican House members of so-called “debt prioritization” legislation, which would order the Treasury to make certain debt payments while shutting down other parts of the government. It’s not a feasible option politically — the Senate wouldn’t pass it, and Biden wouldn’t sign it — and thoughtful conservative economists have belittled it as dangerous and unworkable.But passing it in the House would give McCarthy and his allies a talking point: that they’re engaged in good-faith negotiations, and that it’s the Democrats who are unreasonable.
That’s the kind of trouble that comes to people who even consider negotiations with terrorists: The people holding a gun to your head are rarely honest brokers. That’s why America’s official policy is hands-off when terrorists take hostages. You know, a terrorist may not be just threatening; like the gunmen in Sudan a half-century ago, they might be willing to pull the trigger.
Threats have no place in honest governing. Getting things done for the people requires give-and-take on the part of all the players. In holding the debt limit hostage, suggesting that the United States government won’t honor its promises to borrowers, there’s a clear lack of honesty on the part of the House Republicans. What ought to concern all of us is that they seem to have itchy trigger fingers.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Fort Collins, Colo. (The Coloradoan, coloradan.com)
Wilmington, Del. (Delaware News-Journal, delawareonline.com)
Alexandria, La. (The Town Talk, thetowntalk.com)
Salina, Kan. (Salina Journal, salina.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Controversy sends land use code back to Square One
Land use codes often are controversial in the United States, because they limit how citizens can use their own property. That’s especially true when regulations apply to neighborhoods of single-family homes, where landowners rather reliably resist any steps that could allow more density — and, in some cases, racial diversity. In Fort Collins, a three-year effort to update the land use code was sent back to the drawing boards by the same City Council that had approved it just two months ago, according to reporting in The Coloradoan by Molly Bohannon. The unanimous council vote to pull the proposed code came as a result of citizen opposition, especially to a provision that would allow accessory dwelling units to be built in all residential zones and expansion of affordable housing incentives. Along with removing required neighborhood-level design review, Bohannon reported, those steps that were aimed at increasing the availability of affordable housing will now be reconsidered by the council.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are knocking again
Maybe you didn’t notice, but the pandemic stopped Jehovah’s Witnesses from their trademark door-to-door ministry. Now, reports Esteban Parra in the Delaware News-Journal, their back: The denomination has lifted the ban on personal ministry that it imposed in March of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic took root. "As much as we were looking forward to it, there was an anxiety level that I hadn't felt in a while," one member told the newspaper. "Just rusty, but once we had our first conversations with folks it just faded away.”
Legislator wants “In God We Trust” displayed in classrooms
A Louisiana state legislator has filed a bill that would require every public school classroom in the state to display the national motto, “In God We Trust.” Greg Hilburn of the Lafayette Daily Advertiser reports that the proposal follows a law enacted in 2018 that requires the motto to be displayed in every school. "The signs are up usually near the office, but I've asked my grandkids if they've ever seen it and they said no," said state Rep. Dodie Horton, sponsor of the new bill. "But they will see these in their classrooms." The motto was adopted in 1956, and now adorns U.S. currency. Horton said she wasn’t concerned that the display would impinge on the constitutionally required separation of church and state. "I'm not asking you to accept my God or pushing religion on anyone," she said. "I just want children to see that there is a creator. I don't see it as a controversial bill."
Schools to regulate displays, add mid-week scheduling
Amid political pressure aimed at limiting teachers’ classroom decisions, the school board in Salina has set a new policy that defines what an appropriate classroom display might be, according to reporting in the Salina Journal by Kendrick Calfee. The new policy would clarify that what’s displayed in the classroom is subject to control and restriction by the school district. And in what may be a sign of declining impact of church activity (at least, in the view of your Upstate American editor), the board also is moving to eliminate a provision that restricted school activities from Wednesday nights. The Wednesday Night Activities policy, which would be eliminated, currently states: “No school activities will be scheduled on Wednesday nights without prior approval by the superintendent.” In many communities across the country, schools historically have left Wednesday evenings free for church activities, which for generations included prayer services and other activities at mid-week in Protestant churches.
A toast to what keeps the heart healthy
(NOTE; A version of this essay aired on Northeast Public Radio on Jan 20, 2023. Listen for Rex Smith’s commentary and The Media Project program each week, or download them at wamc.org.)
The great Man of Letters in our community, William Kennedy, just turned 95. That’s worth celebrating. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a MacArthur “genius grant,” he is truly a treasure. And, thankfully, the guy is still writing.
The other evening, we went out to his place in the country, but it wasn’t to celebrate his birthday. We went to see Mr. Kennedy on the day that we lost Russell Banks, another great American writer and Mr. Kennedy’s longtime and dear friend. Russell was only 82, but he ran into a pretty aggressive cancer, and that’s what felled him, at his home in Saratoga Springs. It’s hard to imagine: Russell was quite a force. And his writing — 14 novels, nonfiction books, poetry and short stories – was muscular, inventive and provocative. As The Washington Post wrote the other day, Russell Banks’s work reflected what the critic called “the scale and scope of what’s at stake for beings burdened with a conscience.”
So losing Russell Banks was a big deal, and so we went out to the Kennedys’ place in rural Rensselaer County to commiserate. And Bill got behind the bar in his big living room, and pulled out a bottle I’ve never seen before, which he said he didn’t really know, either — an Irish whisky called “Red Breast.” He poured us a couple of glasses on the rocks.
I’m not usually an Irish whisky fan, and Mr. Kennedy is more inclined to red wine, usually — though this wasn’t the first time we had turned to a brown liquid together, and, by God, I pray it won’t be the last. We talked some about Russell, and what Bill was doing — about the book he is working on now. Somehow, there were refills of our glasses. It was really quite good, that Irish whisky; Mr. Kennedy assessed it as “creamy,” which isn’t a word usually associated with whisky, you know, but I must say that I think the man was right. It was creamy.
Or maybe it was the occasion. Sitting there away from the winter cold, thinking and talking about literature and friendship, about what we cherish in life, well, I felt quite blessed.
Not five days later, The New York Times tried to spoil all that for me. I know, it was nothing personal, but what are we to think about this headline: “Even a Little Alcohol Can Harm Your Health.” That’s what it said, right there on the front page of The New York Times. My first thought was of the new bottle of, yes, Red Breast Irish Whisky in my own liquor cabinet, which I had bought the day after we visited Bill Kennedy’s place.
Right up at the top of that article, the writer labeled it a buzz-kill — true enough, that — and then the piece went on to tear apart all those comforting articles over the years about research suggesting that a little bit of drink is actually good for you, and especially red wine. Doesn’t that raise your so-called “good” cholesterol? Doesn’t it protect your circulatory system, and your heart? We’ve read that kind of thing for years, right? Yet this was a well-reported piece, I must say, laying out the arguments that, as one expert put it, “Alcohol is harmful to the health starting at very low levels.”
I tried to find fault with the piece — you know, I spent 30 years as a newspaper editor, so I’m entitled to critique journalism. But this was written by a very smart young science journalist who happens to have a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, and she was Phi Beta Kappa at USC — yes, I checked! — so you have to respect the reporting about how alcohol damages your DNA, and prevents your body from repairing the damage. This reporter — with a byline of Smith, though no relation to me, I believe — wrote: “Light daily drinkers would likely benefit by cutting back a bit.”
Then, down at the bottom of the piece, she wrote this: “None of the experts we spoke to called for abstaining completely, unless you have an alcohol use disorder or are pregnant.” The final quotation of the piece went to an expert who said, “Drink less, live longer.”
I can handle that. And here’s what I’d like to say about what matters: Not just living longer. Each of us makes judgments about what enriches our lives, and choices about what we do to make our lives better, and not just safer. We have to make those choices with open eyes — and hearts, too.
You know, 46 thousand people die each year from auto accidents, but I get behind the wheel of my car every day, anyhow, knowing that risk, and doing my best to not add to that tragic statistic. I’m at risk when I’m on my bicycle, too, and surely I would be better off if I would eat less ice cream, and forswear bacon altogether.
But we don’t live by the actuarial tables alone. We live not just to enhance the circulation in our heart, but to grow the warmth there, too. We balance the sensible and the sensitive.
We don’t always make the right judgments. Maybe I cut off a couple weeks of my life as I downed more than one glass of Irish whisky with Mr. Kennedy. But as we toasted the vigorous and productive life of Russell Banks, we were reminded of how lucky we are to live fully, and how important it is to embrace love and warmth when it comes our way.
So let’s raise a glass to that, my friends.
Thank you for reading — and a special thanks to our paying subscribers. And thanks for joining me as we think about what we experience these days on our great *common ground, this America.
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