Republican presidential candidate and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is fending off criticism that he doesn't understand how the debt ceiling works, after flubbing a radio interview earlier this week.
"Critics have blown this way out of proportion," Carson said in a statement released Thursday -- one day after a tense exchange with Marketplace reporter Kai Ryssdal over whether he'd raise the debt ceiling ahead of the looming Nov. 5 deadline.
In his statement, Carson said he had "no comment" on that question specifically, but took care to note that he did in fact understand what the debt ceiling is. "Raising the debt ceiling is about paying for obligations the federal government has incurred," he said.
In the interview Wednesday, Ryssdal pressed Carson on whether he'd raise the debt ceiling to prevent the U.S. from defaulting on its debts. Carson replied, "I would not sign an increased budget," an answer that seems to conflate the debt ceiling with the overall federal budget.
Here's the first part of the exchange (bolding by HuffPost):
Ryssdal: All right, so let's talk about debt then and the budget. As you know, Treasury Secretary Lew has come out in the last couple of days and said, "We're gonna run out of money, we're gonna run out of borrowing authority, on the fifth of November." Should the Congress then and the president not raise the debt limit? Should we default on our debt?
Carson: Let me put it this way: if I were the president, I would not sign an increased budget. Absolutely would not do it. They would have to find a place to cut.
Readers, to be clear -- the budget and the debt ceiling are not the same thing. The debt ceiling sets the maximum amount the federal government can borrow to meet its existing obligations, such as paying out Social Security, military salaries, interest on the debt, etc. So the ceiling isn't about finding new stuff to spend money on -- it's about fulfilling the obligations the government has already committed to.
Raising the debt ceiling used to be a perfunctory thing, but over the past few years, it's become a centerpiece of congressional shenanigans. Republicans in Congress have threatened not to raise the limit if Congress doesn't make spending cuts -- thus tying the ceiling thing to the budget thing, which sort of explains why Carson answered the question that way.
Ryssdal tried to explain the difference between the ceiling and the budget to Carson, but it didn't appear to take.
Ryssdal: To be clear, it's increasing the debt limit, not the budget, but I want to make sure I understand you. You'd let the United States default rather than raise the debt limit.
Carson: No, I would provide the kind of leadership that says, "Get on the stick guys, and stop messing around, and cut where you need to cut, because we're not raising any spending limits, period."
He tries again:
Ryssdal: I'm gonna try one more time, sir. This is debt that's already obligated. Would you not favor increasing the debt limit to pay the debts already incurred?
Carson: What I'm saying is what we have to do is restructure the way that we create debt. I mean if we continue along this, where does it stop? It never stops. You're always gonna ask the same question every year. And we're just gonna keep going down that pathway. That's one of the things I think that the people are tired of.
Here's Carson's full statement on Thursday, as posted by an NBC reporter.
Carson went on to tell Ryssdal that debt is the biggest economic issue the U.S. faces today and that it's "killing the poor and the middle class." Ryssdal begged to differ. "I'd quibble with you there, sir, and talk about the financial crisis ... but let's move on."
Eventually, they went on to other topics: Carson's support for a flat tax of about 15 percent on everyone, instead of the income tax system we have now. It's kind of a callback to the Ross Perot campaign from the 1990s.
Ryssdal pulls no punches with Carson, even schooling him a little on what to call Obamacare:
Carson: I dislike the so-called Affordable Care Act so much—
Ryssdal: I think it is called the Affordable Care Act, sir.
It's been a rough week for Carson, who also was criticized after suggesting the victims of a mass shooting should've done more to defend themselves.
You can listen to the full interview on Marketplace's website.
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