I have a message for my former colleague John Boehner:
Don’t do me any favors. Specifically, please stop acting as if allowing the United States of America to meet the debts it has incurred as a result of votes both of us have cast is a concession you are making to me or anybody else. It is simply an act of basic responsibility. It will not fund any future public policies. It will not enable people to do some of the things that you oppose — increasing environmental protection or expanding money available for the repair of our aging infrastructure, for example.
With one exception, raising the debt limit relates only to past spending.
The exception is that if you continue to enable the right wing of your party in its demand that America fail to meet its obligations, the interest we must pay when we borrow will probably go up. It is true that the last time your party threatened to cause a default, and Standard & Poors lowered America’s debt rating, it paradoxically benefited us because worried people all over the world did what has long been considered to be the safest thing an investor can do: buy obligations of the United States government. But that worked precisely because there was no default. Had you then, or if you now, actually cause our government to fail to make payments it has solemnly promised to make, the effect will almost certainly be that we will have to pay more on money that we borrow in the future.
I am particularly insistent on rejecting the idea that if you allow a majority of members of the House to decide whether or not to let America put its money where its mouth has been, you are performing an act for which you should be politically compensated by the president. You have voted to incur much more of that debt than I have. You voted for the Iraq war. I voted against it. That alone accounts for at least a trillion of what we owe. You also voted for President George W. Bush’s prescription drug program, which I approve of in general policy but opposed for several reasons at the time. That adds several hundreds of billions of dollars more.
Additionally, your vote for the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2002 resulted in additional trillions. In citing your vote for the war and the Bush tax cuts, I do not mean at this point to re-argue whether they were right or wrong. I simply note the fact that they added very large amounts to what we owe, over my objection, and with your approval.
Given that, I am utterly baffled as to how you can continue to act as if voting that our government should pay for policies that you supported is somehow a kindness you are being asked to perform for the Democrats. I do agree that there should be negotiations over the budget, and I know that the president and the Senate leadership are ready to talk about the amounts that should be spent in the appropriations process. Indeed, as you know, they have already conceded to your party’s position and as a result are ready to spend far less than I believe we should. For example, I continue to be very troubled by your withholding the funds necessary for the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, which we empowered over your objection to regulate derivatives, and which has been starved of the funds to do so, putting our economy potentially at risk from the kind of manipulations that we saw at AIG.
But your view that simply allowing the members of the House to vote on whether or not America should pay the bills it has already incurred is a concession on your part makes literally no sense. Has it become your view that because President Obama won the last two elections, he now owns the country, and that the Republicans are merely tenants, indifferent as to whether or not we pay our debts? Explain to me why it is not the case that they are the obligation of all Americans, and that all of us have an equal interest in and responsibility for paying them.
Republicans are often fond of comparing the national debt to personal or family debt, even though that is a flawed economic view. But one part of the analogy is relevant to your refusing to allow the country to meet our obligations. When you receive your credit card bill for expenditures you have freely made, do you write to the credit card company and offer to negotiate with them as to whether or not you should pay, giving examples of some of their policies which you wish them to change, and threating to hold off on paying what you owe them until they agree to do that?
I do not want to appear ungracious — at least more than normal — so I will not reject completely your offer to do me a favor.
Please send me one of those flags that has flown over the Capitol — which I used to send out when I was a member — and I will fly it particularly proudly on the day that we have paid our debts, as a great nation should unhesitatingly do.
Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.