Several years ago Karl Rove, the Republican strategist and mega fundraiser, famously said that he would like to shrink our government so small that he could grab it by the throat and drown it in a bathtub.
Toward that goal, a number of Republicans now say the shutdown was perhaps good — and that defaulting — not making debt payments to holders of U.S. Government Treasury Bonds — would not have been so bad.
They are wrong of course. Anyone who has failed to pay his/her legitimate debts knows the financial and reputation consequences. Cheating countries like China, South Korea and Japan that have lent us trillions of dollars and especially cheating our own citizens, who own the majority of U.S. Treasury Bonds, is certainly immoral, if not also illegal. But it gets worse.
Some Republicans, including N.C. Sen. Richard Burr and Ken. Sen. Rand Paul, are suggesting that debt payments could be made by using the salaries of government employees currently furloughed by the shutdown; that their back wages be taken and used to make payments on the government’s debt. We used to call that “stealing.”
But it gets even worse. There is another more insidious method to this seeming madness.
Since passage of the Social Security law in 1935, Republicans have tried repeatedly to eviscerate it, even to get rid of it. By law, the Social Security Department may invest our withholdings nowhere but in U.S. Government Treasury Bonds. The investment in these government bonds is called the Social Security Trust Fund. Over the years, the Social Security Trust Fund has built up a steadily growing reserve fund. It is now the largest single holder of government bonds.
Importantly, both the interest on the investment in these bonds and the eventual returns from their maturation are pivotal to Social Security’s meeting its obligations to all of us over the next few decades.
So, given that one conservative goal is to kill Social Security, what better way than to renege on the U.S. government’s contract with bondholders to pay back, with contract interest, the money we invested in U.S. bonds, trusting that “the full faith and credit of the United States Government” had meaning. But the conservative strategy is simple. Take its savings. No money, no Social Security. You’ve got to admit that’s clever; fraudulent perhaps — but clever. But it’s going to get even worse.
Sadly, killing Social Security is but one goal of today’s uber-conservatives. It is just one step along the way toward shrinking government so small it can be drowned in a bathtub. The current shutdown is giving us a small taste of the very small U.S. Federal Government conservatives envision. Strangely, for both true conservatives, as well as for progressives, this small taste is a very good thing. Conservative believers agree with Thoreau that the “government that governs best governs least.” Some even agree with him that the best government governs not at all.
For the new breed of conservative congressmen, and for the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, the shutdown was a good thing because it provided a glimpse into an exciting future — the small American government that conservatives have for years dreamed about. The shutdown provided an incentive to “stay the course.”
Many others, though, believe that we need a strong, financially secure and active central government, one that not only protects our freedom but also takes a leadership roll in, “… securing the blessings of (our) liberty.” These are people who believe that, at least in part, it has been our government’s size that has helped propel our nation to the greatness it has seen over the past century.
For them, the shutdown was a clear warning, a shot across the bow. For them, this experience was good because it provided a temporary harbinger of changes to come if conservatives continue to take us toward a small and, therefore, in important ways, impotent and ineffective government, diminished in the eyes of the world and impotent in the experience of its people.
For those who remain concerned about governmental fairness and justice, I suggest letting that shot across the bow be a call to wake up and also a call to action. Phone, write, text, tweet or email, but however you do it, let our congressional representatives know that we Americans are a proud and trustworthy people. We don’t welsh on our debts, not to other countries and not to our own people.
Dick Denman, LCSW, is retired after working for 18 years as a psychotherapist with the Nevada County Mental Health Dept. He lives in Rough and Ready.