No answers for the folks back home

Republican rhetoric about the debt ceiling is beginning to sound amazingly like the rhetoric that proceeded the government shutdown. Whether the GOP’s “no big deal” talk is a signal that Republicans are ready to take us into a default remains to be seen, but it isn’t encouraging.

Pro-shutdown and default positions, once staked out only by Congress’ newest and most extreme members, have lately taken on a mainstream flavor. Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a member of the Senate since 2005, who previously served three terms in the U.S. House, joined the bandwagon Monday.

“There’s no such thing as a debt ceiling in this country because it’s never not been increased, and that’s why we’re $17 trillion in debt,” said Coburn said Monday on “CBS This Morning.”

“I would dispel the rumor that’s going around that you hear on every newscast that if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, we’ll default on our debt. We won’t. We’ll continue to pay our interest, we’ll continue to redeem bonds, and we’ll issue new bonds to replace them.”

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said Sunday that default could be avoided if the U.S. prioritizes the payment of its obligations. That could mean officials would have to weigh making payments to foreign bondholders against sending out Social Security or veterans’ benefits because the federal government spends more  each month than it takes in.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said that “prioritization” is just another word for default.  It is also unknown what damage an attempt at prioritization would have on the economy and financial markets. America has never defaulted and neither has it ever tried such a prioritization plan.

Just the fact that the debt ceiling matter is up for debate is making markets jittery. In 2011, there was so little faith that the parties would end their bickering in time to avoid default.  Standard & Poor’s downgraded American’s credit rating for the first time in history.  The last country to make it back to AAA after a downgrade spent 19 years doing so.

Sadly it’s hard to find a member of the Nebraska Congressional delegation who  is taking  a firm stance on the debt ceiling.  None has posted their position on their official web site, even though the deadline is next week.  In the media, their comments are mostly limited to the old-news shutdown.

Do Sens. Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer think no Nebraskans own Treasury bills? Do Reps. Lee Terry, Jeff Fortenberry and Adrian Smith not understand that many of the elderly are already worried about their November Social Security checks?

2nd District Rep. Jeff Fortenberry was one of those who supported the 2011 fight over the debt ceiling that led to the credit downgrade. He has  since said he would not support another debt ceiling fight — but not recently.

Freshman Sen. Deb Fischer may even support the drama of the twin shutdown-default fights. In one of her September columns, Fischer wrote:

“This pair of decisions present Congress with the opportunity to address our out-of-control spending. Nebraskans know that Congress doesn’t act unless it is forced to do so. That’s why I look forward to the debates on our rising debt.”

Nebraskans should be getting loud-and-clear answers from their Washington delegation. We saw our home values and retirement accounts trashed in the 2008 economic crisis. We’ve been through the deepest recession since the Great Depression. Our families have suffered layoffs, and now the hardships of the shutdown. We are a nation at war. Why do our leaders in Washington think it’s OK to shut down the government while our military fights a war that Congress created?

The “Prioritization” option may seem like an alternative, but it’s not. The nation’s payment system is automated for efficiency. Even if the Treasury Department could find enough fountain pens, paper ledgers and green eye shades to un-automate, there are too many bills and too few Treasury employees to make it work. Most of them at home, furloughed.

Nebraska’s senior senator, Mike Johanns, has voted both for and against past debt ceiling increases, but hasn’t said whether he would support an increase this month. He did say, however, that he’s worried about the situation. Aren’t we all?

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