Boehner’s overlooked acknowledgment

The Speaker--and Paul Ryan--say we don't have an immediate debt crisis. Isn't that news?

Over the past weekend, there was actually some news made on the Sunday morning talk shows for a change. Two leading Republicans—House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman—declared that the federal government does not, at the moment, face a debt crisis.

“We do not have an immediate debt crisis, but we all know that we have one looming,” Boehner said on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

Ryan, appearing on CBS’s Face The Nation, spoke almost identical words: “We do not have a debt crisis right now, but we see it coming.”

The “no immediate crisis” line echoes something President Obama had said just a week earlier. But as those quotes show, the Republican position continues to be that a debt reckoning lies just over the horizon. And the GOP is not adjusting its favored budget policies—most recently laid out in the latest Ryan budget, which also speaks of a crisis that is about to hit, but hasn’t yet. So this bit of coordinated messaging does not represent a full about-face.

Still, given the way the budget wars dominate national politics—and the way different assumptions and frames dominate discussion of the budget—the statements by Boehner and Ryan were news in themselves, not to mention occasions for further reporting.

If you rely on a newspaper for your news, though, you might not have heard their comments. As of Tuesday, the statements had not made into The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Dallas Morning News, The Denver Post, Detroit Free Press, The Kansas City Star, The Miami Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, or The Seattle Times, among many other newspapers, a check of the paper’s websites, Google, and the Nexis “all news” file showed.

So where did they get written up? Sean Sullivan, writing for The Washington Post’s “The Fix” blog, delivered an account of the remarks. (The item did not appear in the print version of the Post, which consistently shortchanges readers who pay for home delivery compared to those who read the publication’s broader online offerings.)

The Chicago Tribune buried on Page C12 an underwhelming 77-word Reuters account:

Leading congressional Republicans said Sunday a broad deal with President Barack Obama on deficit reduction and entitlement reform remains possible but differed over potential flexibility on taxes, with the House speaker and budget leader not bending.

House Speaker John Boehner and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan agreed with Obama’s assessment that the U.S. was not currently in a debt crisis but that one was looming.

The online versions of the Tribune and its sister paper, the Los Angeles Times, also ran a solid account by Christi Parsons. (Unfortunately, both the Post blog item and Parson’s piece relayed without comment a dubious claim from Boehner: that major federal entitlement programs are “going to go bankrupt” without major changes. See CJR’s Trudy Lieberman for more on that.)

And a brief, unbylined story attributed to McClatchy-Tribune showed up at, among other places, the website of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Taking note of Ryan and Boehner’s comments is just the first step, though. The real work for journalists is in digging into the follow-up questions their comments suggest, such as: If we don’t face a debt crisis now, how can we be sure one is “looming,” especially with deficits now falling and even Medicare cost growth slowing? What fiscal steps, if any, are needed to avoid such a “crisis”? And are the budget wars principally about addressing a “debt crisis,” or are they about advancing rival visions of the role of government?

But that work depends on a foundation built by informing readers about what leading politicians are saying. Yo, reporters and editors—take a look at what your newsroom has reported and what Boehner and Ryan said. Then figure out how to get this news into your paper, where it belongs.

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David Cay Johnston covers fiscal and budget matters for CJR’s United States Project. He is a reporter with 46 years of experience, including 13 at The New York Times; a columnist for Tax Analysts; teaches tax and regulatory law at Syracuse University Law School; and is president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). Follow him on Twitter @DavidCayJ. Tags: , , ,