How Bad Is The Debt Ceiling Acrimony? The Best Quotes from Former Pols

On Politics and Leadership

I guess I’ll just say this, I hate to get to personalities, but if Grover Norquist is more powerful than the president of the United States, and the AARP is more powerful than the Congress, we ain’t got a prayer.

—Former U.S. Sen. Alan Smith (R-WY), who co-chaired Obama's deficit reduction commission, in a July 14 Associated Press article

Washington traditionally boasts about its profiles in courage. Today, facing arguably the greatest potential financial crisis in American history, politics trumps economics as officials focus on the next election instead of the public interest. The leader of the parade in profiles in cowardice is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell with his ingenious, diabolical proposal, which avoids tough votes for Republicans and places all the blame on Democrats. It's all inside the beltway maneuvering and hard to explain, but it is indispensible for the American people to understand it so public opinion can be mobilized to stop it.

-Former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), in an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun on July 23. 

When you're a new member, you have very strong feelings.  I remember when I first came to the House, my attitude was I wanted it my way or not at all.  And over the years, I found out that if you take that attitude, what you get is nothing. You've got to be prepared to do some compromising.  It's not a dirty word.  It's part of the legislative process.  When you've got in the Senate 100 United States senators from different regions, different philosophies and backgrounds, you have to find some common ground.  It's never easy.

—Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) on Tea Party freshman on ABC's This Week on July 24

I'm like everybody else, I think, out here in the real world. I am frustrated. I have seen enough. I want these guys to do something real. Let`s get rid of the gimmicks. I don`t care if it`s one part or two parts. But let`s do something that really does reduce the deficit. Let`s reduce it now and let`s reduce it by at least $4 trillion.

—Erskine Bowles, co-chair of Obama's deficit reduction commission and a White House Chief of Staff during the Clinton administration, on MSNBC on July 15. 

This in a way is an old story, but it has a special nasty tone this time partly because this is a group of Republicans, the so-called Tea Party people, that profess to have their heels absolutely dug in and no whisper of anything that sounds like a tax increase. That among other things makes this difficult. Nobody knows how sensitive these people are to the very real risks of a very distorted, dangerous situation if the debt ceiling was not increased. 

—Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who served under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, in a video interview with Bloomberg on July 14. 

The president will win because a terrible thing was averted...Even if people agreed with him—just like they agreed with me on the [1995] government shutdown—the consequences of not paying our bills could be so great that [voters] could blame everybody. That was his risk. But he’s proved willing to take it and I think he should have and I’m proud of him for doing that... And I think the Tea Party will win because they won’t be outed... In other words, if this thing happened, you might have a successful third party candidacy for President—if our credit got down-rated and everybody’s interest rates went up. But I think the Tea Paty would be toast, because they’ve been going around telling everybody this is no big deal.

—Former President Bill Clinton in The National Memo on July 19. 

On the Consequences of Default 

The government would not stop and it would not default. Unfortunately, because the decision as to who and what gets paid is left to the president and his people, it is more than likely that the politics of the situation might cause them to choose not to send out Social Security checks or pay Medicare. This would give them the double benefit of enraging seniors, whose rage the president’s party would adeptly (with the assistance of NPR) direct at the Republicans while continuing to fund their favored departments such as Labor and Transportation that take care of their issues and friends. This is why the Republican House needs to pass a bill that outlines how it thinks the revenues that will be coming in should be spent. 

—Former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) on what will happen if there's no deal by August 2, in an op-ed in The Hill on July 25

I think that we know that the consequences of failure here are just too great. And both—all sides know that. And I think they're going to come to an agreement sometime shortly. 

—Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), on the prospects for a deal by August 2, on ABC's This Week on July 24.

On the Misplaced Focus on the Debt Ceiling

The debt ceiling is a cap on the amount of securities the Treasury can issue, something it does to raise money to pay for government expenses. These expenses, and the deficit they’ve wrought, are a result of past actions by Congress to create entitlement programs, make appropriations and cut taxes. In that sense, raising the debt limit is about paying for past expenses, not controlling future ones. For Congress to refuse to let Treasury raise the cash to pay the bills that Congress itself has run up simply makes no sense.

—Bruce Barlett, a former Reagan advisor and Treasury official in the George W. Bush administration, in a Washington Post op-ed on July 7. 

I think frankly this is an unnecessary problem. The debt ceiling serves no useful purpose because once you've created a set of obligations you fix spending and we have a revenue code which engenders revenues…unless your arithmetic is subnormal, you know what the debt ceiling theoretically is.

—Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who served under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George. H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer.