The congressman called while I was listening to him on the radio. That’s not quite accurate. A representative of the representative phoned, but he did ring while his boss was making his case to eliminate NPR on NPR.
A poor connection garbled the initial exchange of salutations, leaving me clueless as to the caller’s identity. But he seemed to know me, or at least know of my reputation. In a slightly quivering voice betraying a hint of nervousness, he explained that he was from the Joint Economic Committee in Congress. “As you know,” he added, before unleashing a barrage of economic jargon, only a small portion of which I managed to, well, know. I dared not admit as much, as I was enjoying the caller’s flattery.
“Given that statutorily imposed debt limit will likely be reached soon,” my mysterious interlocutor went on, “concurrent with the expiration of the continuing resolution to fund government operations, the congressman would be grateful for your views on whether to raise the debt ceiling.”
“The debt ceiling?” I repeated, confused.
“Correct. It’s a decision of enormous magnitude, and the congressman, who holds you in the highest regard, would like your input on what course of action to take.”
Moments earlier, the congressman, a staunch conservative and leader of his party, had made his case on air. Massive cuts, including to public radio, were required to “get us on the path to a balanced budget.” He took no pleasure in driving the dagger in deep. “We can’t afford it,” the congressman solemnly said in reference to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the parent organization of NPR. “How can we get back to a country that has it its financial house in order without making difficult cuts?”
Playing the heavy on fiscal matters did not suit the lawmaker who, over the past decade, enthusiastically supported: a massive new entitlement, prescription drug benefit for seniors; successive tax cuts, mostly for the wealthy; and two unfunded wars. What’s more, he remains an ardent champion of permanently repealing “one of the worst, and most terribly unfair taxes,” that on inheritance—unfair, apparently, because it only exempts taxation on estates valued up to $5 million, not more.
While the congressman’s sincerity about restoring economic discipline may be in doubt, there is no question that his own fiscal witches brew is unexceptional. It’s GOP orthodoxy. Indeed, the 176-member House Republican Study Committee, of which the congressman is a member, calls for expenditures reductions totaling $80 billion in the current fiscal year. Because the group has vowed not to reduce spending on defense, veterans, and homeland security, the proposal would, as the Washington Post’s David Milbank points out, require 40 percent budget cuts to such mainstays as the FBI and National Institutes of Health. Yet regressive tax cuts, as ever, remain sacrosanct to the GOP.
“I appreciate your inquiry,” I responded, “but may I ask why you’re interested in my opinion? Why me?”
“Am I not speaking with Douglas Holtz-Eakin?” he asked, naming the prominent conservative economist who might well have become Treasury secretary in a McCain administration.
“You are indeed,” I might’ve replied. “And if the congressman wants my advice, it is this: A rising tide may lift all boats, but an unrelenting drought will ultimately beach them, too. In a time of great adversity testing our nation, we must come together—together for the common good. Many tough decisions lie ahead. Sacred cows will be gored. But for now, during this period of economic turmoil, we must heed that age-old admonition: do no harm. Raise the debt limit. To do otherwise would compound our troubles. It would risk calamity. And don’t de-fund NPR. It’s a national treasure.”
I chickened out instead. “I’m not Mr. Holtz-Eakin,” I admitted. “You have the wrong number. But as luck would have it, I was just listening to your boss, who is on NPR as we speak.”
“I’m so sorry,” the caller said with a chuckle. “I thought I was speaking to Mr. Holtz-Eakin. This is terribly embarrassing. I do apologize.”
Honesty cost me an opportunity to influence the nation’s economic trajectory. I’m not Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and I don’t play him on TV—or on the phone. But I’m not entirely honest, either. Before hanging up, the caller asked that I keep private our misbegotten conversation, as his reaching out to Mr. Holtz-Eakin was done in confidence.
I assured him I would.