Opinion and Taking Issue

KENNEDY: Elections have consequences

October 20, 2012

Sheila Suess KennedyTry as I might, it is close to impossible to escape the political ads blanketing the airwaves in these last days leading up to the election. If those 30-second spots were all we knew about the candidates, we’d be justified in concluding that both political parties are running raving idiots.

That said, some are worse than others. For example, Richard Mourdock is running an ad attacking Joe Donnelly for voting to raise the debt limit.

Think about that.

As a number of economists have pointed out, the debt limit is an odd artifact of U.S. law. Congress has to authorize all spending and it must also levy the taxes to pay for that spending. Why require a separate vote to authorize the borrowing that will be needed if the spending you’ve voted for exceeds the revenue that will be raised by the tax rates you’ve just set?

Odd or not, the debt ceiling has routinely been raised by large bipartisan majorities without controversy for many years, because the consequences of failing to do so would be catastrophic. That we have citizens who don’t understand that is unfortunate; that we seem to have elected a number of them in 2010 is frightening.

That government is not balancing its books is a genuine problem. Reasonable people can disagree about the mix of “revenue enhancements” (aka taxes) and spending cuts needed to address that problem, how much stimulus is needed to get the economy moving again, and what programs might be cut without harming our still-tenuous recovery from the Great Recession. But only someone with absolutely no understanding of the system advocates a reckless measure that would plunge us back into recession.

According to reputable budget analysts—liberal and conservative alike—if the U.S. hits the debt ceiling, the government will be forced to stop paying roughly a third of its bills. That is the percentage currently financed by borrowing. The federal government would need to choose a major category to stop paying: Would it choose Social Security? Medicare providers? Military contractors? Interest on the debt?

Any of these decisions would inflict grave damage on the overall economy; furthermore, a failure of the United States to pay its debts would likely set off a worldwide market panic. Responsible legislators understand the consequences that would flow from such a wildly irresponsible act; even the very right-wing U.S. Chamber of Commerce has urged Congress to raise the debt ceiling “expeditiously.”

Of course, Mourdock is the same guy who sued to stop the automobile rescue despite the fact that, had he been successful, Indiana—a state heavily dependent upon automobile manufacturing and supply—would have lost well over 100,000 jobs.

If Mourdock is elected, he’ll join the growing number of ideologues (including Indiana gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence) who spend their time focused more on biblical imperatives and women’s reproduction than job creation and budget balancing.

Just in the past couple of weeks, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin (he of the “legitimate rape” furor) claimed that doctors perform abortions on women who aren’t pregnant. Georgia Rep. Paul Broun, a fellow member with Akin on the science and technology committee, characterized evolution and the Big Bang theory as “lies straight from the pit of hell.” Michelle Bachmann’s run for president brought her special approach to logic to public notice, but a list of equally reality-challenged lawmakers would take more space than I’m allotted by IBJ.

Elections have consequences. Sometimes those consequences aren’t pretty.•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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