The U.S. debt ceiling's connection to war

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca in its summer fundraiser today for as little as $5 per month!

President Barack Obama touted his debt ceiling deal Tuesday, saying, "We can't balance the budget on the backs of the very people who have borne the biggest brunt of this recession." Yet that is what he and his coterie of Wall Street advisers have done.

In the affairs of nations, Alexander Hamilton wrote in January 1790, "loans in times of public danger, especially from foreign war, are found an indispensable resource." It was his first report as secretary of the treasury to the new Congress of the United States. The country had borrowed to fight the Revolutionary War, and Hamilton proposed a system of public debt to pay those loans.

The history of the U.S. national debt is inexorably tied to its many wars. The resolution this week of the so-called debt ceiling crisis is no different. Not only did a compliant Congress agree to fund President George W. Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with emergency appropriations; it did so with borrowed money, raising the debt ceiling 10 times since 2001 without quibbling.

So how did the Pentagon fare in the current budget battle? It looks like it did fine. Not to be confused with the soldiers and veterans who have fought these wars.

"This year is the 50th anniversary of [Dwight] Eisenhower's military-industrial complex speech," William Hartung of the Center for International Policy told me while the Senate assembled to vote on the debt ceiling bill. Speaking of the late general turned Republican U.S. president, Hartung said: "He talked about the need for a balanced economy, for a healthy population. Essentially, he's to the left of Barack Obama on these issues."

Michael Hudson, president of the Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trends, explained the history of the debt ceiling's connection to war:

"It was put in in 1917 during World War I, and the idea was to prevent President Wilson from committing even more American troops and money to war. In every country of Europe -- England, France -- the parliamentary control over the budget was introduced to stop ambitious kings or rulers from waging wars. So the whole purpose was to limit a government's ability to run into debt for war, because that was the only reason that governments ran into debt."

The Budget Control Act of 2011 assures drastic cuts to the U.S. social safety net. Congress will appoint a committee of 12, dubbed the "Super Congress," evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, to identify $1.2 trillion in cuts by Thanksgiving. If the committee fails to meet that goal, sweeping, mandatory, across-the-board cuts are mandated. Social services would get cut, but so would the Pentagon.

Or would it? The Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus opposed the bill. Congressional Black Caucus Chair Emanuel Cleaver called it "a sugarcoated Satan sandwich." For fiscal years 2012 and 2013, the discretionary funding approved is split between "security" and "nonsecurity" categories. "Nonsecurity" categories like food programs, housing, Medicare and Medicaid (the basis of any genuine national security) will most likely be cut. But the "security" budget will get hit equally hard, which Democrats suggest would be an incentive for Republicans to cooperate with the process.

The security category includes "Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the intelligence community [and] international affairs." This sets up a dynamic where hawks will be trying to cut as much as possible from the State Department's diplomatic corps, and foreign aid, in order to favour their patrons at the Pentagon and in the weapons industry.

Hartung explained that the contractors, in addition to having the support of Speaker of the House John Boehner, "had Buck McKeon, the head of the House Armed Services Committee, whose biggest contributor is Lockheed Martin, who's got big military facilities in his district, [and] Randy Forbes, whose district is near the Newport News Shipbuilding complex, which builds attack submarines and aircraft carriers. They used their influence to get people on the inside, their allies in the House, to push their agenda."

President Obama's debt ceiling deal is widely considered a historic defeat for progressives, a successful attack on the New Deal and Great Society achievements of the past century. Congresswoman Donna Edwards, D-Md., summed up the disappointment, in which half the Democrats in the House voted against their president, tweeting: "Nada from million/billionaires; corp tax loopholes aplenty; only sacrifice from the poor/middle class? Shared sacrifice, balance? Really?"

The Project on Government Oversight says of the "Super Congress" that "the creation of the committee doesn't come with many requirements for transparency." Who will be the watchdog? With the 2012 election coming up, promising to be the most expensive ever, expect the committee's deficit-reduction proposal, due by Thanksgiving and subject to an up-or-down vote, to have very little to give thanks for.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 900 stations in North America. She is the author of Breaking the Sound Barrier, recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.