Martin Schram: The leadership vacuum in D.C.
America is rolling toward another presidential inaugural week with many folks thinking everything in Washington sucks — and in fact, they do have a point.
But at least we’ve finally figured out what’s causing the “giant sucking sound” that Texas billionaire Ross Perot used to say he could hear inside the Beltway. It’s caused by two huge leadership vacuums at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
We saw it with our own ears, just this past Monday.
At a news conference at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., President Barack Obama said congressional Republicans will rain economic hell down upon all Americans and transform the country into “a deadbeat nation” if they successfully block the once-ritualistic raising of the debt ceiling that permits the government to pay its existing bills. Republicans vow to oppose raising the debt ceiling unless Democrats agree to dollar-for-dollar spending cuts matching each new debt-ceiling dollar.
Hear the president:
“If congressional Republicans refuse to pay America’s bills on time, Social Security checks and veterans’ benefits will be delayed. We might not be able to pay our troops, or honor our contracts with small business owners.
“Food inspectors, air traffic controllers, specialists who track down loose nuclear material wouldn’t get their paychecks. ... Markets could go haywire. Interest rates would spike for anybody who borrows money -- every homeowner with a mortgage, every student with a college loan, every small business owner who wants to grow and hire.”
Meanwhile, 16 blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue, members of Congress who oppose another routine raising of the debt ceiling were explaining why. As you listen, you’ll have to admit their argument rings as eloquently as Obama’s.
Hear one senator:
“The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. government can’t pay its own bills. ... It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our government’s reckless fiscal policies. ... This rising debt is a hidden domestic enemy, robbing our cities and states of critical investments in infrastructure like bridges, ports and levees; robbing our families and our children of critical investments in education and health-care reform; robbing our seniors of the retirement and health security they have counted on. Every dollar we pay in interest is a dollar that is not going to investment in America’s priorities. ... I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.”
Oops. To quote another Texan, Gov. Rick Perry, pardon my computer-research error. Actually, it turns out that quotation isn’t from this year’s debt-ceiling debate. It’s from 2006, back when yet another Texan, President George W. Bush, wanted to routinely raise the debt ceiling — so Democrats reflexively opposed it. And the senator speaking above was the freshman from Illinois, Barack Obama.
That explains why the senator’s argument seemed so impressive — and why so many Americans and observers half a world away view Washington with contempt and confusion. Today, Washington is Hate City; it is populated by pols who scheme for partisan gain and shun patriotic duty.
In 2006 and today, the debt-ceiling/deficit-spending principal truths were clear and consistent: America must pay its debts, so the ceiling must be raised; America must cut its deficits, so spending must be cut. We must rethink some basic entitlement assumptions. We must sew shut tax loopholes, subsidies, giveaways and look-the-other-ways.
Leadership in Washington needs to be born again. A good way to start would have been for Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to begin leading by putting their cards face up on the table. Show us their best bold proposals for the cuts they know we need. After all, there are no secrets anymore.
“We can achieve that, and we can achieve it fairly quickly,” Obama said in his news conference. “I mean, we know what the numbers are. We know what needs to be done.” So do it.
Last Monday would have been a good time to start.
Next Monday will work, too.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.