A Letter To Congress

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from reader T. Willerson

Letter to congress

Dear Congressman:

It’s here:  Your moment at the plate.   You’ve whiffed more than a few … and, yes, we’re counting.  But you’ve been gifted another at-bat, and the President’s tired.  Seventh inning stuff is coming out of his teleprompter, and this full-count fastball will be straight, level, and slow.  You won’t see another one like this for five years.

An embattled first term president is faced with an outcome that he must, at all costs, prevent, and he’s done very little ground work ahead of it.  He is about to become the first President in American history to preside over a default on the national debt, unless you vote to let him raise the limit on the financial burden we leave our children.  He would ultimately be crazy to deny any reasonable option, absolutely anything, rather than live with the outcome of his refusal.  Politically speaking, he’s whispered a prayer to the Greek God of Imprudence and Fiscal Insanity, raised a one-finger salute to the nation’s savers through the sunroof of a stolen golden Beemer, and revved it toward the draw-bridge that you were elected to control.

Graphic by John Lohman

America’s debt has been moving straight up since the early 1980s.  In the beginning it was ok.  Debt is not, in itself, a bad thing, and a reasonable amount of leverage on the balance sheet can be positive for any entity, including the United States.  But we’re well past that threshold.  Researchers Reinhart and Rogoff, in their exhaustive recent work, This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, show that, historically, when debt in an economy gets above .9x, or 90% of GDP, the interest burden creates a negative cycle from which nations struggle to recover.  If we include the unfunded liabilities we’ve committed to in order to support programs like Medicare and Social Security, the United States of America’s financial obligations represent 8.7x, or 871% of GDP, almost 10x the amount that Reinhart & Rogoff determined lead to ultimate economic failure.  In terms that are much easier to identify with, this comes to a debt of $1,386,340 for every family in the US!  When you consider the average family’s ability to pay, it all begins to rhyme with those 2007 no - doc mortgages, doesn’t it?    In fact, if the US was a corporation, we’d be in bankruptcy proceedings and you, kind sir, would be holding a pink slip, a legal summons, and a scrap of paper with Dick Fuld’s cell phone number on it for advice on staying out of jail – because the truth is that he is no more guilty than you, and you no less than him, and we can stop kidding ourselves whenever you’re ready.

But, politically, you ask… what can really be done?  After all it’s always the other guy.  You know, that, sniff - sniff…, mean congresswoman from a lunatic district who disagrees.  It’s her fault.  She doesn’t understand math.  And she’s just intractable.  Intractable!  She believes that America’s social contract (I can’t find that in the constitution… ) is more important than the critically important task of shooting Tomahawk missiles at other parents’ kids to support… uhhm… different kids that we don’t really know, in a war that’s only sort of, well... a war.  I mean, the nerve of that… woman.  And there are others like her.  And there’s an election coming up every two years.  A bigger one every four.  Wait… what in God’s name did that lunatic McCain just say?  … Anyway, progress is too much to expect, and after a couple years of trying, you just… roll with the punches… do what you can…  Right?

When it’s time for that morning look in the mirror, you tell yourself it’s harder than you thought.  Too much of it seems bigger than the promises you made to get there.  In the face of disagreement, in the thrall of tight votes and divided leadership, you simply can’t get it done the way you’d hoped.  So you parse the polls, you chase the cameras, you fondle your constituents, and you wonder what the view looks like from the upper chamber.  You ultimately retire to the lobbying job, with one hell of a pension, and live in a way that you despised before you realized what two kids in college, vacations in Europe, and a wife with a strappy Jimmy Choo habit would cost.  You’ve kicked the proverbial can down the road, and maybe you tell yourself that it’s all our political system will allow.  And so it goes.

Or you find your moment - that point of crisis when rare circumstances put the bat in your hand, and you have the leverage to make a change - the kind of change that’s identified by far more than a focus-grouped slogan; the kind that alters the course of history.  You can do it by simply standing firmly for the principles upon which you were elected.

To blame you for catastrophe, legislators first have to explain the rejection of an acceptable alternative.  Barack can load the teleprompter with the righteous indignation of his Father’s Dreams and level each syllable with a stage actor’s grace.  The senate can whine and Harry Reid will triangulate desperately toward that elusive line between patriotism and pandering, sensitivity and simpering, missing every second and third step along the way.    You’ll have to hold through the deluge because the bully pulpit wins the news cycle, but an administration bears the blame.  Deflecting reporters is a privilege of the political class, but a President is beholden to history.

Certainly you could play for a single; just get a runner on base and hope like hell that the relief pitcher isn’t as strong as he’s been for the last ten years.  You could pick and pry and get just enough to say you won; aim for destabilization in the next election, and keep looking for your next shot.  You could bunt something unintelligible and complicated enough to confuse the anchorman and the AARP, pick the flowers from the fertilizer, and beseechingly extend the mess into the camera lens.  You could head for the primrose path with a pension and the lobbying job, and wonder, in weak moments, what your grandparents would say about abdication of duty.

Or you could rise to the challenge and do something meaningful - something that would answer that cynical question, the one that is on the lips of a generation raised to mute sound bites and soapboxes with the bored sweep of a pointer finger, but whose votes elected this President.  Their question: What does any of it really mean?

If not now… when?  Whether you win the next election or not…whether the next news cycle gives you a boost or not….  Will you get this chance again?  The President is in a bind that no speech, no dog-wagging war, no bill, and no mindless populism can change.   His back is against the 2012 wall and this time the outcome is binary.  He knows it.  He absolutely has to have you help him raise the debt limit.

This is legacy stuff, and it doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you claim, so keep it simple.  Leave out the social invasions.  Stay out of bathrooms, bedrooms, churches, and doctor’s offices.  Cancel the earmarks and the garbage.  Skip the things that sound good but won’t work.  Shoot straight and don’t strut.  Do it early.  Do it clearly and forcefully, but respectfully, and explain it with logic that doesn’t require lies.  Deliver it in a way that leaves no doubt about your goals, your intent, or your resolve, and leave the cigars at home.  Let your most aesthetic, most intelligent, most media-savvy person front it, and limit the bill to one page.

Send the President a bill that says Federal debt, in all forms and definitions, must be less than 60% of GDP by 2016, less than 50% by 2020, and less than 40% by 2024, or, in each of those years, a bi-partisan group will cut Federal Funding at the strategic, and line item level, until the goal is met.  Furthermore, debt must stay below the benchmark thereafter, short of a Declaration of War or National Emergency supported by a two thirds vote of both houses of congress.  And in the case of temporary exception, anything over the maximum must receive the same two-thirds vote each year or immediately go back to the limit via the same committee.

Barack will not like this choice, and he will thrash and froth.  He’ll reload the teleprompter again and again in fiery waves of verbal and emotive genius that will make you question everything you believe, and, ultimately, your congressional reason d’être.  But, in the end, a solution he hates will be better than having his name on the first and only default in the history of the United States.

So plant your feet and point your finger at the bleachers.  Tell the President that you don’t intend to change a word because a default now is no different than a default later, and you’d rather see him get the credit.  Give him a clear choice and a good look at the filthy cesspool that lies in wait on the other side of the decision, and let him decide whether to court disaster.  Then take him to the wall.