Pondering the situation in Washington, where all is madness, I found myself trying to remember the name of the Firesign Theater bit in which game-show contestants compete for prizes at the risk of their lives. “Beat the Reaper!” it was. (Thanks, Google.) You had 10 seconds to guess which fatal disease the host just injected into your arm. You think it’s what? “Oh, I’m sorry, no, the correct answer is the Bubonic Plague. You didn’t Beat the Reaper.”

And so it is with the current negotiations over whether to increase the nation’s debt ceiling. Oh, I’m sorry, time’s up, you’ve failed to increase the debt ceiling in the time allotted, so you’ve committed suicide as a nation. But thanks for playing!.

I mean, talk about funny. You make up a character, let’s call him the President of the United States. Let’s say that he actually decides to negotiate with Congress about whether to pay the nation’s debts. Then let’s make up some congressional “leaders,” you know, idiot characters who actually don’t want to pay the nation’s debts because that’ll show everybody — y’know, when the country’s dead — that borrowing money was the devil’s playground.

So now, let’s start the clock while they negotiate — but the negotiations are about something else! OK. Now, we have a humorous premise.

But what should they negotiate about? Doesn’t matter, how about the NFL lockout? … and if they can’t put an NFL deal together in time, well, too bad but the nation’s debts don’t get paid, the country goes into default and they didn’t Beat the Reaper.


Well, you say, you’re just being stupid, because this isn’t about something inconsequential like the NFL, it’s about whether the nation will continue to borrow money in the future, or whether it will come to its senses and balance the federal budget the same as your household budget. (Wait a minute, you borrowed money to buy your house? And your car? And college tuitions? And your beach house? But I digress.)

And my answer is, the NFL lockout is just as relevant to the question of whether to increase the federal debt ceiling as is the issue of future federal budgets.

Because, and here’s the point, the federal debt ceiling is about debts already incurred or being incurred in the current budget year — debts that must be paid.

There’s no question about it, nothing to bargain about, nothing to trade for, nothing to deal away. The debt ceiling must be increased, and the debts must be paid.

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And just in case anybody (read: any Congress) ever wanted to put a gun to the nation’s head and say, e.g., Unless the President does what we want about abortions, we’ll refuse to raise the debt ceiling and pay our debts, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, Section 4, states: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law … shall not be questioned.”

[Q: What’s missing in the ellipsis? A: Don’t even try to read public debt as not including the costs of fighting the Civil War. They’re not to be questioned either.]


We have two debates going on in Washington. One is whether to pay the public debts already incurred. The second is what future budgets should be. The two are unrelated. That the congressional Republicans wanted the two things tied together — that they threatened to blow up the country if they didn’t get their way on future spending — is irresponsible to the max. That President Obama entered into negotiations with them anyway — played “Beat the Reaper” with the nation’s credit anyway — is just as bad. Maybe worse.

The question of the President’s negotiating skills can wait for another day. Suffice it say, he’s down to his skivvies and the Republicans are still fully dressed.

The only saving grace will be if the President, finally refusing to let the Republicans pull his shorts down, invokes the 14th Amendment before next Tuesday and says, Boys (they’re all boys in the GOP), I was never negotiating with you in the first place. It was all a parody designed to show how irresponsible you are. But thanks for playing Beat the Reaper!