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Missive to a Reasonable Man (an open letter to Speaker Boehner)

November 28, 2012, 7:54 AM

Dear Representative Boehner,

Earlier this month, after President Obama was re-elected, you assured America in an interview that you are the "most reasonable, responsible person here in Washington.” No one wants to hurtle over the “fiscal cliff” in January, even if it is just a “fiscal slope,” and assurances of your willingness to compromise with the Democrats and work out a deal were music to our ears.

But over the weekend, you said something very troubling about another impending deadline that makes me wonder how reasonable you really are. Here is how Politico reported it:

President Barack Obama made a demand of House Speaker John Boehner near the end of their first White House meeting on the fiscal cliff: Raise the debt limit before year’s end.

Boehner responded: “There is a price for everything.”

Before we get into the debt ceiling debate, let’s clear the air on the meaning of the word “reasonable.” Here, as a first pass, is how Google defines it:

To gain more purchase on the concept, we could look at the account of reasonability from John Rawls, the great 20th-century theorist of liberalism. A reasonable person, for Rawls, is “ready to propose, or to acknowledge… the principles needed to specify what are seen by all as fair terms of cooperation.” Rawls’s Harvard colleague T.M. Scanlon has a similar idea in mind when he sketches the bedrock of his contractualist moral theory:

An act is wrong if its performance under the circumstances would be disallowed by any set of principles for the general regulation of behaviour that no one could reasonably reject as a basis for informed, unforced, general agreement.  

Putting these ideas together into an accessible whole, then, let’s settle on this: being reasonable means listening to others, exercising sound judgment and proposing ideas that other people have no good reason to reject.

By this standard, you aren’t living up to your promise. There is no interpretation of “reasonable” that includes holding the welfare of the country hostage to a partisan list of demands.

We’ve been here before, Mr. Boehner. A little over a year ago, the United States came within days of defaulting on its obligations to its creditors when you walked out of talks to raise the debt limit, a move that Congress has made regularly over the years with no fuss and no political wrangling. (You yourself voted five times to raise the debt ceiling before 2011, with nary a caveat or a complaint.) You did finally settle on a deal to raise the debt ceiling on July 31, 2011, three days before the U.S. Treasury estimated the government would begin defaulting on its loans. But the damage was done. In early August, Standard and Poor’s announced that it was lowering the credit rating of the United States from AAA to AA+, making it more expensive to borrow money and adding to our national debt. The stock market plunged 5.6 percent in a single day. U.S. Treasury yields fell to their lowest levels on record. International leaders criticized the United States for being “dangerously irresponsible.” The S&P registered an embarrassing lack of confidence in our political system when it sketched the justification for lowering the credit rating:

[T]he downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges...

Reasonable people learn from experience, and experience shows that playing chicken with the financial obligations of the United States is a very, very bad idea. If you insist on attaching a “price” to raising the debt ceiling, you will neither be exercising sound judgment nor proposing fair terms of cooperation that reasonable people could accept. You will be putting your country in jeopardy.

Be reasonable, John. Assert yourself in the debate over how to avert the fiscal cliff with the right mixture of spending cuts and tax increases, but do not burden your country with another game of debt ceiling chicken. We can’t afford it.

Sincerely yours,
Steven Mazie

p.s. Please follow me on Twitter (@stevenmazie).


Missive to a Reasonable Man...

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