Boehner and the Bad Analogy: The Debt Ceiling Debate

John Boehner has signaled that he will withhold Republican support for an increase in the debt ceiling unless President Obama and Congressional Democrats agree to institute corresponding spending cuts. This comes despite the fact that last year’s identical battle ended with the Republicans agreeing to a structure that would make these cuts. Apparently keeping promises is not a strong suit for Boehner and his cadre of Tea Party activists.

As this debate takes over the news in the coming weeks, each of us has a responsibility as citizens to confront the misinformation and rhetorical sleight of hand that will come from Boehner and other Republicans wherever we hear it. This is a simple guide to confronting one of their primary tactics.

Unfortunately, Republicans have done a good job of obscuring the debt ceiling debate by employing the analogy of a “household credit card bill.” This simple analogy has helped Republicans convince a segment of the American population that voting for an increase in the debt ceiling is the same as “charging more money than you have” that voting against the increase in the debt ceiling is “responsible budgeting.” This analogy resonates with Americans who understand credit card debt and the need to think twice before buying that trendy new product. They see it as respectable for Republicans to say “let’s not charge more on America’s credit card.”

The problem with the analogy is that the vote to increase the debt ceiling is not “charging on America’s credit card,” it’s actually telling your credit card company that you’ve decided not to pay your bill this month.

Lest anyone be confused and argue that this vote is about the debt and not “being a deadbeat,” just look at the fallout from the last fight over the debt ceiling. Compare in your head the difference between your credit rating after 1) not charging that new gadget you can’t afford”; and, 2) charging that new gadget and telling the company you aren’t paying the bill. Now remember that S&P downgraded the U.S. credit rating last year saying:

The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy. Despite this year’s wide-ranging debate, in our view, the differences between political parties have proven to be extraordinarily difficult to bridge, and, as we see it, the resulting agreement fell well short of the comprehensive fiscal consolidation program that some proponents had envisaged until quite recently.

If the Republicans were right, S&P should have patted America on the back after Boehner convinced Obama to impose mandatory spending cuts in order to receive debt ceiling approval. That S&P singled out Boehner and the Republicans for making “threat of default [a] political bargaining chip[]” should be all you need to understand that the Republicans are using a bogus analogy.

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