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Akst: The show must go on … hopefully

Last week, I said the government shutdown is senseless, damaging, costly, preventable, and the fault of a tiny, rabid faction of one party. It’s hurting real, everyday people, it’s costing the U.S. economy an estimated $300 million a day, and it’s tarnishing the reputation and credibility of America.

Gallup released data Wednesday showing that Americans’ confidence in the economy saw its biggest one-week drop since September 2008. National polls still place most of the blame for the shutdown on Republicans, but at this point, polls on this issue are kind of silly.

Because in fact – not in opinion poll – a small group of hardline, ultra-conservative people caused this shipwreck. The shutdown is a conscious political strategy months in the making. We know this from at least two pieces of evidence.

1. Earlier this year, as the New York Times reported Saturday, a group of conservatives led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III met to devise a strategy to defund Obamacare. Out of that meeting came a document called “Blueprint to Defunding Obamacare” that Meese and other conservatives signed. The document is easy to find online.

“Conservatives should not approve a CR [a CR is the continuing budget resolution that would allow the government to reopen] unless it defunds Obamacare,” the document says. Further, “A mere ‘date-change CR’ is unacceptable. Although the Obama administration and others will argue the CR is not the appropriate legislative vehicle to defund Obamacare, it is easily done through a series of appropriation riders. Because the CR represents one of the best vehicles possible to delay the implementation of Obamacare, it must not be used to bargain on the upcoming sequester.”

2. House Speaker John Boehner told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News on Sunday that a shutdown became the plan.

But compared to whether Congress votes to raise the debt ceiling, the shutdown is small potatoes.

I was a business reporter for a while and I read economic news nearly every day. But saying I’m an expert on the economy is like saying I would be a good surgeon because I’m good at removing ticks from dogs.

Which puts most of us in the same boat, because let’s face it: One of the main things wrong with America is the complexity of our finances.

But here are a couple of things to consider about the debt ceiling:

The patron saint of the Republican Party, Ronald Reagan, directly approved raising it 17 times.

Despite cavalier rhetoric, nobody has a cavalier attitude about the debt the U.S. carries. The nonpartisan, famously low-key Congressional Budget Office notes (in “Choices for Deficit Reduction”) that there are serious, negative consequences in carrying large amounts of debt relative to the Gross Domestic Product.

“Prolonged increases in debt relative to GDP can cause significant long-term damage to both the government’s finances and the broader economy,” the CBO report notes. Some examples it lists are higher federal spending on interest payments, reduction in savings, and an increased likelihood of fiscal crises.

Raising the debt ceiling does not mean we incur extra debt. Here’s what the Department of the Treasury says:

“The debt limit is the total amount of money that the United States government is authorized to borrow to meet its existing legal obligations, including Social Security and Medicare benefits, military salaries, interest on the national debt, tax refunds, and other payments. The debt limit does not authorize new spending commitments. It simply allows the government to finance existing legal obligations that Congresses and presidents of both parties have made in the past.

“Failing to increase the debt limit would have catastrophic economic consequences. It would cause the government to default on its legal obligations – an unprecedented event in American history.”

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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