At his press conference the other day, President Obama offered the political world a reminder about reality: "The debt ceiling is not a question of authorizing more spending. Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize more spending. It simply allows the country to pay for spending that Congress has already committed to. These are bills that have already been racked up and we need to pay them."
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said this explanation may seem "compelling," but he disagrees with it anyway.
"It is a compelling message saying we need to pay the bills that we've racked up. But it misses the whole point," Portman told Fox News.
The Ohio lawmaker went on to compare the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling to credit card debt, equating Obama's stated unwillingness to bargain over an extension to a free-spending teenager.
"Think about it in terms of a credit card," Portman said. "If you have a son or daughter who exceeds the limits, what do you do? The first thing you do is probably rip up the card. The second thing you do is say, 'We need to change our spending habits.' This is what the president won't do."
Now, you may be thinking that this sounds like pretty routine rhetoric from congressional Republicans, and it's true -- nonsensical GOP talking points on the debt ceiling are painfully common.
But the reason this quote stood out for me is the background of the person who said it: Rob Portman is the former director of the Office of Management and Budget. The Republican senator, in other words, must realize what he's saying doesn't make sense.
The alternative interpretation is that Portman, a 14-year congressional veteran, and a man who served as the Bush/Cheney budget director for nearly two years, has not yet bothered to learn the basics of budget policy.
And I have to hope that isn't true.
Just in case anyone's inclined to believe Portman, let's once again set the record straight.
Congress approves federal spending, the executive branch follows through accordingly. When the legislative branch spends more than it takes in, the executive branch has to borrow the difference, but in order to do so, Congress has to raise the debt limit, allowing the White House to pay the bills.
According to Portman, these basic facts "miss the whole point." I haven't the foggiest idea what that means in this context. How can the reality of the debt ceiling miss the whole point of raising the debt ceiling?
The Republican senator instead compares the president to "a son or daughter" -- conservatives seem to love equating Obama to children -- who exceeds a credit card limit. First, that's budgetary gibberish, since the president doesn't have the power of the purse, and Obama can only spend when Congress tells him to spend.
But second, even if we use Portman's metaphor, a family that finds itself with bills can't declare, "We have a spending problem so let's stop paying our bills."
How the former OMB director, ostensibly one of the Senate Republicans' more wonky members, can find this confusing is a mystery. I know Portman has a habit of making stuff up during television interviews, but this is ridiculous.
Update: A few emailers remind me of the irony of Portman complaining about fiscal challenges given the deficits he built up as Bush's OMB director, and the fact that Bush-era policies are driving today's deficits. It's a good point.