September 16, 2013
Speaker John Boehner (c) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (r) (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Speaker John Boehner, center, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

A statistic in the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll drives me nuts. It’s 44 percent. Here’s the question: “Do you think Congress should or should not raise the debt ceiling? If you don’t know enough to have an opinion, please just say so.” The 44 percent who said the nation’s borrowing limit should not be raised should have responded “I don’t know” — because then they’d be telling the truth.

Clearly, what I’m about to tell you cannot be said often enough. Raising the debt ceiling does not stop future spending. And not raising it is not the equivalent of cutting spending. Failure to raise the debt ceiling would turn the United States into a deadbeat. That’s because the money gained from raising it is needed to pay $16.7 trillion in bills racked up by Washington since the beginning of the republic. To do otherwise, to not pay the nation’s bills, would destroy the full faith and credit of the United States and take down the global economy with it.

That the electorate doesn’t understand the complexities of the debt ceiling isn’t surprising. What’s scary is that some members of Congress don’t either. A powerful chunk of the Republican caucus in the House is hell bent on forcing President Obama to defund or delay his health care law. These zealots have now voted an insane 41 times to kill Obamacare.

But that didn’t stop House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) from proposing to tie raising the debt ceiling to a year-long delay in the implementation of Obamacare, some provisions of which start Jan. 1, including the health care exchanges for which enrollment begins Oct. 1. Cantor scuttled it after a revolt on the right and unified resistance from the left. Cantor and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) know full well they are playing a dangerous game. That they continue to play it is further proof they live in fear of those who neither understand nor care that they don’t understand the implications of what they are doing.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew informed Boehner last month that the nation would run out of borrowing authority to pay its bills “in the middle of October.” At that time, Lew pointed out, “Treasury would be left to fund the government with only the cash we have on hand on any given day. The cash balance at that time is currently forecasted to be approximately $50 billion.” In the world of federal finances, that’s pocket change.

Now, here’s the scary part. The venerable Bipartisan Policy Center estimates that the Treasury will run out of that $50 billion sometime between Oct. 18 and Nov. 5. That’s the “X date.” If we reach that point, all hell will break loose. The president would be in the politically perilous position of choosing who gets paid on time and who doesn’t.

“It’s time for the president’s party to show the courage to work with us to solve this problem,” Boehner told reporters on Thursday. It is long past time for the speaker to show the courage to stand up to the crazy wing of his own party. Destroying the full faith and credit of the United States while on a fool’s errand to defund Obamacare, the president’s signature legislative achievement, which was upheld by the Supreme Court, is not leadership. It’s surrender.

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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.