OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Can’t keep putting it off

I'd send in now my quarterly estimated federal income-tax payment due June 15 if I thought it would help.

That's the kind of caring patriot I am. I know enough about our politics and governance to appreciate the delicate frailty and the value above all else--well above ideology or partisanship--of keeping it functioning.

But my pittance might help only if everyone else self-employed and on a quarterly-pay system would send theirs early as well.

And that's where the United States finds itself amid the abject failure of responsible governance that is this debt-ceiling atrocity.

This debt-ceiling brinkmanship has seemed more frightful than all those others, even the one in 2011 when the stock market fell by a fifth as doomsday loomed closer and closer before a last-minute deal. Our politicians are more ridiculous now, and they were quite ridiculous then.

On Tuesday The Washington Post offered an exclusive report that was telling. The paper had come into receipt of memoranda from the Treasury Department to federal agencies telling them to report in advance on any forthcoming daily outlays of $50 million or more and to begin thinking about which among these forthcoming scheduled payments might be fudged for a few days.

The situation is that the government has reached its limit on borrowing, which is vital to daily operation, and is getting bills paid for now by using reserves and cash on hand. But that is expected to run dry as early as June 1 and almost certainly by June 8 or 9.

The only recourse--the absolute only--is for the silly, lame politicians to vote, and vote soon, simply to raise the statutory debt ceiling to get paid what has to be paid. But that's all gummed up in political grandstanding.

The Post quoted government budget experts as saying that Treasury is invoking greater urgency because logistics and timing are beginning to reveal an uncertain but imminent doomsday amid complex, slow-going negotiations between the White House and House Republicans--Joe Biden and Kevin McCarthy on the generalities and aides on the details.

So, The Post reported, the White House and Treasury are looking for ways to keep spare change flowing until June 15, at which time electronic submissions of quarterly estimated taxes would free up enough cash on hand to push doomsday back to early- or mid-July. That would give the malfeasant politicians more time to work out something grudgingly agreeable on this unavoidable obligation that everyone knew months ago was coming.

This grudgingly agreeable something would have to pass both the House and Senate even with zealous right-wing Republican extremists infesting the House and zany left-wing extremists infesting the Senate.

The House right-wing Republican zealots have been professing to want it all--deep discretionary spending cuts, a tougher immigration policy, punitive budgets cuts for the FBI for investigating Donald Trump, and a work requirement for social safety-net programs, perhaps exempting Medicaid, if the White House can effectively insist on that.

On the Senate side, 11 impractical liberals, a perhaps redundant reference, have signed a document calling on President Biden to act unilaterally to violate the debt ceiling and personally order the government to keep borrowing and spending. They rely on the uncertain authority of the 14th Amendment's provision declaring the due debts of the government valid.

Some constitutional lawyers say that perhaps could be done legally. Others say it's the height of folly; that no one is saying the debt isn't valid; that to pay on debt on a double-dare ploy that will be sued and possibly invalidated is probably as calamitous to global markets as not paying at all.

If the mere public revelation of such a potential scenario doesn't unsettle the markets and start draining 401(k)s and IRAs of retirement peace of mind, we'll be lucky.

To his credit, the ever-straddling Biden, trying to be centrist in one sentence and progressive in the next, has been pretty clear that the 14th Amendment can't be applied now unless it's the last, desperate recourse, but that, after we settle this little crisis, he'd like to study the recommendation and perhaps get it pre-litigated somehow to see if it could apply.

We'd be much better off not setting a debt ceiling and dealing with debates and reforms on spending and policy issues on their own, absent the brinkmanship. But that idea bears the burden of sanity and reason, and thus seems naïve.

Still, you're going to have to pay your bills regardless of what's going at the border or whether a work requirement on welfare would do either poor people or the job market any good.

Beware. A household metaphor is coming. It is that you can't blow off the light bill until the kids do their chores. You'll wind up in the dark with lazy kids and tasks still undone.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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