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Post Leadership
Posted at 05:11 PM ET, 04/18/2011

Debt ceiling: When it’s time to break a promise

(Brendan Hoffman - GETTY IMAGES)
The 87 Republican freshmen who were elected on their promises to cut up the nation’s credit cards and slash the national debt now stand between the call to raise the national debt ceiling and, economists threaten, financial catastrophe of biblical proportions.  The potential consequences are so high, the Post’s Philip Rucker reports, that they’re getting visits from not only Treasury Department officials, but unnamed financial industry executives and business leaders who are trying to change their minds, explaining why they should vote to allow the government to take on even more debt.

The pressure from business executives who would otherwise be likely partners to these elected officials helps illustrate the severity of the consequences if the debt ceiling isn’t raised. Not doing so would mean the U.S. could no longer pay for many of its expenses, such as Medicare and Social Security. The country would default on its debt, sending the global economy into chaos. As we’ve heard many times by now, the 2008 financial crisis would look like a cakewalk in comparison.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which any leader—no matter how principled or committed to extreme political positions they may be—would be willing to be held responsible for that sort of doomsday scenario. It’s possible, of course: The anti-debt tenor is certainly strong enough to render it imaginable.

But I have to think the consequences are dire enough that, in the end, enough votes will be cast for an increase as long as a massive price is extracted in the form of huge spending cuts. No matter how many business executives lobby for an increase, “Jamie Dimon told me to vote for it” probably won’t cut it with these novice representatives’ spending constituents. But “we got X billion in spending cuts in return” just might.

Either way, many will still be left breaking their initial campaign promise. It may be softened by the pound of flesh they got in return, or explained away by the nightmare that could have developed if they didn’t vote for it. But when all is said and done, they will have done something different than what they initially swore they would.

That happens all the time in Washington, you might say. Politicians renege on campaign promises as often as Lindsay Lohan enters rehab. And a freshman class of representatives, many of whom were novices to the political process, no doubt could end up breaking more than others. No matter how much such commitments may be part of the campaign game, they leave leaders in a tough spot later on. Maybe a little less time should be spent making grand promises for or against a certain issue, and a little more on coming up with realistic solutions to the same problems.

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By  |  05:11 PM ET, 04/18/2011

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