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Opinion

Debt ceiling, what’s that? And why does it need to be raised?

A recent Gallup poll found that 47 percent of all Americans oppose raising the debt ceiling.
 
 Julianne Malveaux

A recent Gallup poll found that 47 percent of all Americans oppose raising the debt ceiling. Only 19 percent support raising the ceiling past its current $12.1 trillion dollar limit. The remainder of us say we don’t know enough about the debt ceiling to have an opinion.

That’s part of our problem.

More of us know about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s baby mama drama than about our nation’s finances. And, more of us are actually interested in the sordid drama than in a decision that may ultimately affect our nation’s financial health.

Of course, most of us have no dog in the Schwarzenegger mess, and all of us are impacted by these budget decisions. We have no choice but raise the debt ceiling, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is insisting on draconian budget cuts as the price for Republican acquiescence to increase the debt ceiling. He wants cuts that hurt education, senior citizens, and the needy, and he may well have the political clout to impose such cuts.

If we fail to raise the debt ceiling we will not have the dollars to pay on our obligations. We owe $12.09 trillion dollars and must pay interest on that debt. If we default on our borrowing, our credit rating will tank, affecting our position in the global economic market. So, we have no choice but raise the debt ceiling.

At the same time, the price that Boehner and his gang would extract is high. Will we sacrifice the poor, seniors, and public services to preserve our credit rating?  

Many argue that we make some of the same choices in our personal lives when we have more month than money. Either a creditor goes unpaid, or we go without something we need. We have seen senior citizens making the choice between medication and food, school systems sacrificing bright and promising new teachers for those who are tenured, colleges and universities eliminating classes and majors because their budgets have been cut. If all of us have to make these cuts, some argue, so should the United States.

But, some approach this debt ceiling with a hidden agenda. They would simply like to cut the size of government. Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas) would virtually eviscerate the Medicare program in the name of fiscal efficiency. He wouldn’t tweak it, or impose cost savings; he’d simply get rid of it. His proposal is so draconian that even former Congressman and potential presidential candidate Newt Gringrich criticized it.  And the Tea Party holds such sway on Republican opinion that Gingrich had to quickly backtrack and apologize for his remarks. The apology was not enough – Gingrich was excoriated by fellow Republicans for his position. He had a great week, actually, with the revelation of his big-spending ways (he ran up a six-figure bill at Tiffany’s), and with the indignity of a glitter shower in Minneapolis.

Those who believe in the role that government should play in our lives need to lobby for a viable, strong, and fiscally responsible government. We ought to be able to make the case for good government spending, that which alleviates pain, supports public well-being, protects the least and the left out. We need to be able to make the case for investment in people through education, health care, and job creation. And, we need to make the case that in challenging economic times; there are people who need help.  

If we want to cut government spending, surely we might eliminate some of the corporate perks we keep handing out, like interest free loans or bank bailouts. At the same time, we might well offer struggling citizens some of the benefits we so freely offer corporations. Our foreclosure crisis might be much less severe, for example, if people could get help with their mortgages. In the first 15 years of a 30-year mortgage, most of the payment is interest. What if people got a break on those interest payments?

Here’s the bottom line, though. We have no choice but raise the debt ceiling, but we do have choices on how we choose to spend government dollars. Those who believe in government must advocate for it and reject the Tea Party arguments that the best government is a small one.

The debt ceiling has been raised eight times in the past decade. This time around, though, we are debating the role of government as well as the debt ceiling. Those who believe in government are losing the debate, if just 19 percent of those polled think the debt ceiling should be raised.

(Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina.)

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