Congress Hasn’t Even Been Sworn In Yet And Democrats are Already Mischaracterizing the Debt Limit

The brash and bawdy New Year’s Eve has passed, unfolding into a sober (hopefully) and solemn New Year’s Day. It is a day marked by reflections on the year gone by and resolutions (soon to be forgotten) to improve the days ahead. It’s also a political dead zone, when pundits and prognosticators will day upon day writing about inane things, like whether Sarah Palin’s six-year-old autistic son abuses the family dog, or make up nonexistent squabbles, like this nonexistent showdown between Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, or present us with myriad end of year lists (of which we’re guilty), people to watch for in 2015, and crystal ball predictions.

A relatively new tradition that pundits are employing to fill the void is to warn of the looming debt ceiling fight and budget. In this case “looming” has nothing to do with timeframe, it’s merely an attention-grabbing way to indicate that debates over these issues will happen sometime in the year. For instance, the debt ceiling deal will expire in mid-March, but because the expiration will take place during a time of the year when tax receipts exceed expenses, it could be dealt with as late as September. Likewise, funding for the government must be in place by September 30 (the last day of the fiscal year) or the government will face a shutdown.

Neither of those two dates is exactly right around the corner, especially when you consider that the slew of newly elected members of Congress haven’t even officially been sworn in yet. But that matters not an iota to a press corps in need of story ideas. Rather than give Congress a day (literally, a day) to sit down and plan the year ahead, we’ve got stories warning about how “Republicans will try to use fiscal policy . . .to reduce the size of government . . . in exchange for not destroying the economy” and how the GOP’s debt limit strategy is to “threaten to hurt Americans on purpose unless Democrats meet the GOP’s demand’s…[to] slash public investments.”

Neither of those things is true. It is absolutely correct that Republicans want to make government smaller, but the idea that Republicans would crash the economy or hurt people is ridiculous on its face.

“Let me be clear: There will be no government shutdown and no default on the national debt,” Senate Majority Leader (it feels nice to type that) said in November. “We have other mechanisms that were unavailable to us,” he concluded, referring to spending and budget legislation, which can be used more effectively in place of a debt limit showdown.

But the more insidious problem with news stories like those quoted above is that they wrongly assume that a smaller government is the desired outcome for Republicans. In reality, it is merely a side effect for the true goal – which is a different, better functioning government. Here’s Yuval Levin to explain the difference, and to delve into why Republicans need to fight back against the media’s mischaracterization:

Many families now face stagnating wages, excessive tax burdens, rising health and higher-education costs, barriers to mobility and work, disincentives to marriage and childbearing, and an economy increasingly held back by over-regulation, cronyism, institutional sclerosis, and mounting public debt. All of these burdens have left Americans uncharacteristically pessimistic about the country’s prospects. And in each case an overreaching, hyperactive, unwieldy, and immensely expensive federal government lies near the root of the problem.

This has often led conservatives to appeal to the public by calling first and foremost for restraining that government — restricting its reach, reducing its scope, cutting its cost. These are surely essential goals, but a failure to put them in the context of a larger vision of the proper role of government risks leaving the public with the impression that what conservatives want is less of the same: the liberal welfare state at a lower cost. This is in fact how many on the left would like Americans to understand our public debates.

But, he argues, the size of the government is merely a reflection of its current character, which is a “technocratic approach to American society” that “must feed off of the innovative, decentralized vitality of American life, yet it undermines both the moral and the economic foundations of that vitality.”

The United States has been uniquely successful because of a unique strain of economic dynamism, entrepreneurship and innovation mixed with an unflinching desire toward freedom. Productive chaos is our best asset and yet the liberal welfare state seeks to put technocrats in place to create “consolidating mechanisms” with a goal of taming this chaos.

Republicans don’t want to make a flawed structure smaller, we want to reform government so it contributes to, not detracts from, economic growth. I don’t anticipate the media will understand that anytime soon, but the least Republicans can do is begin to quibble with their characterization.