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Bob Franken: Another government shutdown coming
Bob Franken.jpg
Bob Franken is an Emmy winning, syndicated columnist. - photo by File photo

The phone company is going about it all wrong: The Washington, D.C., area is getting a new area code (771), and instead of fending off complaints because new lines aren’t getting the traditional 202, they should charge more for the new one. That way, the customer can avoid being associated with Washington, the seat of national government.

Is it any wonder there’s no argument when the District of Columbia is called “the Swamp,” where progress goes to die in a quagmire of corruption, ineptitude and bureaucracy? Once again, we’ve faced the threat of that very government shutting down -- well, not shutting down fully, more like partially. Essential services will continue, like military and federal law enforcement, etc., and lifesaving financial services continue. But unessential services -- and that includes most of them -- will by law expire, because Congress can’t get its act together.

We will put off a discussion about why so much of the nation’s business is “unessential”; that’s for another day. But a government shutdown means the poor schlub who’s “essential” must work but not get paid right away, while Mr. and Ms. Unessential don’t work but will eventually get paid, just not right away.

It’s a huge amount of bother for nothing, and expensive, too. But that’s not the worst of it. There’s this little thingy called the debt limit, or debt ceiling. And we’ve already punched right through it, but not really. Our money people are doing a little check kiting. In addition to taxes, the federal government actually sustains itself on borrowed money; consider it something similar to a Ponzi scheme. Over time, it’s maxed out at $22 trillion. Now we need permission to take out more loans. Hence, raising the debt ceiling.

If the United States defaults -- and we will in the next couple of weeks after the financial tricksters have moved all of the funds around and all the financial trickery has been exhausted -- we will face a calamity. At that point, the United States of America will have defaulted on its sovereign debt for the first time in history. Trust me, that’ll be ugly.

But now it’s in the hands of the politicians, which means the worst game of chicken imaginable. We are toying with catastrophe. Chicken Cruz, Chicken Mc-Connell and, yes, Chicken Biden are playing with our future.

Unless they reach an agreement to either raise the debt ceiling or suspend it -- which means the sky’s the limit -- we are like the car loan that isn’t paid. But unlike a car loan, the repo man can’t tow a government away. But it could be more difficult to get credit at such low rates. In fact, Treasury notes would be reduced to junk bonds, since they’d be hugely more expensive to buy. That increase, in turn, will drive up credit costs to finance most of what we buy privately.

It means that inflation will run wild, because our farmers, for instance, borrow to finance the machinery that they need to grow food crops. Which will be OK, because we will not have a kitchen, which is part of the house that defaults on its mortgage.

Obviously, the potential for disaster is such that one side or the other must blink. One side or the other successfully must call the other’s bluff. And they have, so far. But you only get one chance in the apocalypse game.

But it’s a dopey way to do business. And it’s dopey to brag about doing business that way. If you think of it, that’s what an area code is: bragging rights. Why would anyone want to boast about 202? Particularly since it is running out of numbers, a form of obsolescence. Or perhaps we can return to a neighborhood being identified by words that preceded the numbers, like Pennsylvania 6-5,000 in New York. In Washington, we could ring up a direct line on K-Street, where all the lobbyists have offices, by dialing “Greedy” and then a number, or one in the Capitol building like “Corrupt” and a number. Or, if we insist on staying with area codes, bring on 771.

Bob Franken is an Emmy Award-winning reporter who covered Washington for more than 20 years with CNN.

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