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The Irresponsibility of Speaker John Boehner

Like most federal budget watchers, I assumed that the extremely negative political reaction to the federal government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 meant that tactic wasn’t likely to be threatened again, let alone actually used. That changed last year when a shutdown became the favored approach for many on Capitol Hill.

Although the timetable obviously was much more compressed, I thought much the same thing last summer after the extreme negative reaction to the fight over raising the federal debt ceiling also made that look less likely to happen again in the future. Despite the statements made by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other Republicans that using the increase in the federal government’s borrowing limit as leverage to win policy changes was now the new standard operating procedure, the downside was so great that the threat seemed to be mere words.

I was sure that was the case because, unlike the situation in 1995 and 1996, the negative response to the 2011 debt ceiling increase debacle was more than political.

Yes, it was a political nightmare: The approval rating for Congress and the White House fell during and immediately after the battle. But the negative reaction was also material because it resulted in the downgrading of U.S. debt by one of the three major rating agencies.

The downgrade occurred not just because of a concern about the government’s capacity to pay the debt, which wasn’t really questioned but because of what Standard & Poor’s said was the growing inability of the U.S. political system to deal with its fiscal problems. The result was a significant hit to the government’s financial reputation. Most analysts I’ve spoken with are convinced that, were it not for the economic woes in Europe, U.S. interest rates would be much higher as a result.

It seemed so clear that not using the debt ceiling as a weapon had become the minimum price elected officials would have to pay to prevent another possible downgrade that I thought there was no way it would happen again.

That’s why the first major activity by a senior elected official on this topic since then — Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) choreographed events last week in which he repeatedly said he would prevent the debt ceiling increase that will be needed at the end of 2012 or the start of 2013 from happening unless he got what he wanted — was so exceptionally irresponsible.

I’m using the word “irresponsible” very deliberately.

Boehner is more than just a Member of Congress. As Speaker, he is next in line to the presidency after the vice president and the most powerful person in the House. That magnifies the importance of everything he says. Every Boehner pronouncement about an international issue, for example, is closely monitored around the world. Although the executive branch takes the lead in foreign policy, what the Speaker says typically generates an immediate response and, therefore, he usually treads carefully in this area.

I wish the same were true about what the Speaker does in connection with the federal budget. The Constitution gives Congress specific fiscal policy responsibilities — that makes what this or any Speaker says something that makes headlines and is taken very seriously.

Coming on the heels of last year’s downgrade, the very public way Boehner repeatedly issued his debt ceiling threat made it the equivalent of alerting S&P and the other rating agencies that little had changed since last summer. It also was an invitation to again downgrade U.S. debt.

To make matters worse, Boehner’s statements about the debt ceiling might encourage the agencies not to wait until the debate actually occurs to reconsider their ratings. His statements could provide them with all the evidence they need to justify a new review of the situation now. There’s no word for that other than irresponsible.

Boehner’s threat also was irresponsible because the immediate spending cuts he said were the only way he would allow a debt ceiling increase to be considered is the wrong fiscal policy for the current economic situation. At a time when businesses and consumers are still not spending and most state and local governments are continuing to cut back, the federal government is the only major gross domestic product component enhancing growth and creating jobs. Given the current slow recovery, the large spending cuts Boehner is demanding could push the economy back into recession.

It’s not hard to understand the political motivations behind Boehner taking the position he took on the debt ceiling. He needs the support of the House GOP caucus to remain Speaker. All indications are that, as has been the case since the 2010 election, House Republicans are not in a compromising mood on anything having to do with the federal budget.

Threatening another cliffhanger battle as he did last week doesn’t provide the leadership Boehner said was needed to deal with this. Instead of simply complaining that the president had “lost his” courage when it came to the budget, Boehner should have displayed some of his own.

Instead of following his caucus and doing the political equivalent of tying the debt ceiling increase to the track with a train barreling down, the Speaker should have been developing a way to avoid the downgrade and further erosion of confidence in the U.S. political system that, because of his action, is now more likely to happen.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”

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