Written in 1947 by Merle Travis and made famous in the 50s by Tennessee Ernie Ford, the song “Sixteen Tons” evokes the hopelessness of one stuck in the vicious cycle of brutal labor and crushing debt of the pre-OSHA coal miner. Travis’ father, a coal miner himself, allegedly contributed one of his own favorite sayings to the song: “You load sixteen tons what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” But when September rolls around, the fiscally conservative across the nation experience that same hopelessness as they watch Congress “budget” for the next year as if unmanageable debt were a figment of the imagination.
House Democrats – who don’t need any GOP support to get their bills through – passed a continuing resolution (CR) Tuesday night, September 21. If it makes it through the Senate, this measure would fund the government through December 3 – and once again suspend the debt ceiling. The previous limit was $22 trillion. However, when it was suspended in July, the government quickly racked up several trillion in new debt. Then when the so-called ceiling went back into effect on August 1, it reset to the $28 trillion the government actually owed at that point. This CR would suspend this once more through December 16. On December 17, the debt ceiling will settle at – you guessed it – however much is owed at the time. So why does this irk the fiscally conservative so much? Debts have to be paid back, and the annual interest alone for FY 2021 is $378 billion – and even paying that doesn’t reduce the loan; it just keeps it from getting bigger by exactly one interest payment each year.
Shut Downs On the Horizon
Should Congress fail to make it happen, however – as they often have of late – the government “shuts down.” That’s not a shutdown that saves anyone money, though. The definition of “shutdown” is different for the federal government than it is for all other situations. Operations don’t fully cease, thereby saving the taxpayer billions if not trillions of dollars – a dream that lulls many a libertarian to sleep at night. Rather, many functions are frozen, and many workers are sent home – and the members of Congress responsible still get paid even if they don’t do diddly squat. A lot of other federal workers are paid later, and any considered essential – like the military, for example – are made to work through the so-called shutdown. Their pay isn’t technically guaranteed, though when the funding fight is resolved, they’re typically taken care of in the new bill. This convoluted process ends up costing Americans far more in the end.
There was a time when Congress routinely worked together to fund the government for the next year. Should things not work out, there was the CR as a stopgap option, but in recent years, with both Congress and the people at large more polarized than they have been in a very long time, this failure to perform has become the new normal. Writing for Liberty Nation, Dave Patterson recently explained that this has become so routine the Department of Defense (DOD) has a set of new practices that allow operation despite the limiting effects of CRs. Is this surprising? Probably not to most – but it’s certainly a sign of a sad state of affairs.
So what drives this battle of the budget? As nice as it would be to say that it’s fiscally conservative politicians holding back the tide of reckless government spending, that’s only one small part of the equation. For many, it’s about legislative leverage. Oh, you didn’t support our bill? Fine – good luck passing a budget without us. Then there’s the blame game. If the government shuts down, Democrats and Republicans blame each other, all the while lauding themselves once funding resumes. The idea at that point is simply the battle of narratives. Who can fire up the voters – and the donors – more?
Senate Republicans have warned that they’ll resist this bill since it raises the debt ceiling, but history suggests they’ll cave after only a brief fight or, perhaps, even a brief but expensive shutdown. In the end, politicians don’t want to be seen as the ones who cost taxpayers more money. Nor do they want to be the ones who cost American voters their beloved “free money,” which is presumably why Treasury Secretary and former Fed head Janet Yellen warned Republicans that failure to raise the debt ceiling would delay child tax credit and Social Security payments.
Eventually, the agreement will be signed, the government will be funded with a new and improved debt limit, and the fiscal conservatives of America will groan under the burden. Saint Peter don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the Federal Reserve.
~ Read more from James Fite.