Benjamin Franklin allegedly announced, when asked what type of government the men meeting in Philadelphia in 1787 had designed, “A republic, if you can keep it.” As traditionally envisioned, in a republic the citizens of a nation choose representatives to create and execute laws to keep the ship of state afloat.  The U.S. Constitution begins with the unconventional declaration that “We the People of the United States of America” will be responsible for creating our government and assuring that it will “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” This was a lofty and expensive goal to which thirteen distinctly different States aspired.  From the very beginning of our nation, money was a major issue. Governments and government services cost money, and someone must pay the bill.

The American Revolution to establish a government independent of Great Britain was in large measure fueled by disputes over taxes.  This desire to be largely free of taxes and yet have a vigorous economy has motivated numerous changes in the U.S. government over the past 250 years. In recent years, our Congress has repeatedly authorized more spending than it could expect to collect from taxes and other sources of income.  Consequently, we have had to borrow money to cover the expenses Congress authorized.  In its peculiar logic, Congress passed laws that required it to limit its debt to a specific level unless it voted to raise that level of debt to a new limit.

The expenses that repeatedly forced Congress to spend more, and consequently borrow more, than it had in the past were not frivolous.  The biggest expenses that have evolved over the past century are military expenditures, healthcare [Medicare and Medicaid] and Social Security. Despite obvious cases of abuses of government appropriations, such as Brett Favre’s financing of a volleyball facility with funds designated to assist indigent families, the percent of federal funds going to what are generally viewed as ‘welfare programs’ is inconsequential. Even Medicaid, which provides supplemental payments to healthcare providers and facilities to cover expenses for some indigent patients in some states, is dwarfed by the cost of Medicare, a health insurance program for the elderly and disabled that politicians dare not eliminate.

Currently, we face a dilemma [again] with the debt ceiling.  Like a chronic over-eater who promises to stick to his diet tomorrow, Congress is faced with a self-imposed obligation to grant itself the authority to borrow more money to pay for programs it has enacted, authorized, or expanded. In a Catch-22 inconceivable to the drafters of the Constitution, the Congress has threatened to default on its obligations by not raising the debt ceiling unless programs that it previously created, most of which benefit the poor or elderly, are eliminated or shrunk.  Congress could raise the debt ceiling and then target these programs its ‘conservative’ majority wants to change or kill, but the debt ceiling dilemma has offered an opportunity to take a short cut.  Our Representatives are saying that these programs must go now or they will run the ship of state onto the rocks of financial calamity.  They do not have the patience [or apparently the votes] to cut back on programs supporting the elderly and the poor through the usual legislative mechanisms.

If the debt ceiling is not raised, the credit rating of the government will be downgraded, and money needed to pay for government programs will cost more to borrow.  The Secretary of the Treasury will need to prioritize outstanding bills or pay only part of the debt owed by the government or simply suspend all payments until the majority in the House of Representatives and the President agree on how to raise the debt ceiling.

But this entire drama is not about money or reforming a system that allows multimillionaires, like Brett Favre and other friends of the Tennessee governor, to siphon off welfare funds to enrich themselves. It is about power. It is about the perceived competence of the people in charge of the government, and it was anticipated in 1866.

After the Civil War, the states that had seceded from the Union acknowledged their defeat on the battlefield but continued their war in the state houses and in Congress. They passed laws that denied the formerly-enslaved population political power, economic advancement, or protection from false prosecution. A system of mass incarceration and prisoner rental replaced private slave holding with state-sponsored enslavement. What the southern states needed most to ensure their re-emergence as a haven for unfettered racism and a semi-independent coalition of apartheid states was an impotent Federal government. The simplest way to emasculate that government was to wreak havoc with its finances.  In anticipation of this ploy, the Congress and the northern states passed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Section 4 focused on the economic threat to the Union by southern states’s blocking the government’s timely payment of its bills. It states, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, …, shall not be questioned.” Simply put, the government shall pay its bills, no matter what it takes. [Unfortunately, we have a majority of Supreme Court Justices that would undoubtedly insist that that Amendment is irrelevant.]

By failing to authorize the payment of the government’s commitments, commitments that Congress itself authorized, the House of Representatives will trigger an economic crisis that will cause a recession. Economic hardship is routinely interpreted by voters as incompetence at the top of the government.  Bad times for the poor and middle class translates into votes for the party not controlling the White House. The Democratic President would be ousted, and the opposition party would take control of the Senate and probably maintain its tiny majority in the House.  The Supreme Court is already controlled by America’s right-leaning billionaires.  With all three branches of government controlled by men and women who covet power like that in the hands of oligarchs in Russia, Turkey, China, North Korea, and dozens of other nations under authoritarian rule, there would undoubtedly be a grand party held by these billionaires and their minions to celebrate the dismantling of the republic.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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