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GOP, tea party are the only adults in the room

ElectionsNational GovernmentU.S. Debt CeilingBudget Control Act of 2011Budgets and BudgetingU.S. Congress

If congressional negotiators fail to raise the debt ceiling and reopen the government, voters will blame House Republicans, but it's the president and fellow Democrats that are behaving like teenagers by wanting to spend irresponsibly.

Studies by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office and Medicare and Medicaid actuaries indicate if Washington continues spending and borrowing as current law requires, then all Americans, and not just the wealthy, will be paying higher taxes and more on private health care.

Federal spending on Social Security and medical care will squeeze out spending on roads, education and other activities necessary to support the economy and protect public safety. Budget deficits and the national debt will jump to unbearable levels.

Like in Italy, economic growth will slow to a snail's pace, unemployment will become unbearable and working Americans will become much poorer. In the end, Uncle Sam will default on its bonds and obligations to the elderly, and many Americans will be deprived of decent health care.

Since winning control of the House, Republicans have sought to focus the president and his allies in Congress on those challenges, but Democrats have resisted any meaningful changes to entitlement programs.

With Americans living longer, the Social Security retirement age must be raised or benefits checks slashed when the program's trust funds run out of cash. Yet, the president refuses to embrace even the most modest increase in the qualifying age for full benefits advocated by the Simpson-Bowles Commission he created.

Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling in 2011 without genuine spending reforms. With House Speaker John Boehner, the president crafted the Budget Control Act, which sets goals for deficit reductions over the next decade. If the two sides could not come to agreement on how to achieve them, mandatory annual "sequester" cuts were to kick in, mostly from defense and non-entitlement spending. Democrats and Republicans could not agree, and the first rounds of sequester cuts have taken effect.

Now in negotiations, congressional Democrats want to renege on sequestration, and the president has resorted to retribution and fear mongering.

The administration has selectively applied the concept of which government activities are "essential" to impose pain, blame Republicans and reward its political allies.

In Washington, the administration closed roads around the National Mall, limiting access by tourists who want to view national monuments.

This space must still be policed to keep out tourists and for security reasons, owing to its proximity to the White House and Capitol Hill. Yet, the president did see fit to open the mall to demonstrators who came to town last week to lobby for immigration reform.

Each month, the federal government collects $250 billion in taxes but pays $23 billion in interest to public bondholders. If the debt ceiling is not raised and the Treasury can't borrow more money, it need not default, but it will have to set priorities about how to use the cash on hand.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says he can't set those priorities, but unless he plans to skip Social Security checks and pay no bills at all, he will have to do so.

The president says that if Republicans re-open government and lift the debt ceiling, he will negotiate on spending issues; however, he and congressional Democrats won't even adhere to the modest goals set by their agreement to the Budget Control Act.

Only by taking away the money will the elected GOP majority in the House be able to force the president and Democrats in Congress to recognize the painful truth: The nation can't afford their demands for health care spending, Social Security and other entitlement programs without going broke.

By holding firm, House Republicans and the unfairly vilified tea party are the responsible adults in the conversation.

Peter Morici, an economist and professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, is a widely published columnist. His email is pmorici@rhsmith.umd.edu. Twitter: @pmorici1.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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ElectionsNational GovernmentU.S. Debt CeilingBudget Control Act of 2011Budgets and BudgetingU.S. Congress
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