Eleven years ago, I likened the nation’s profligate overspending to a spot along the Niagara River, usually marked by the whitewater rapids alongside Goat Island. It’s known as the point of no return. Venture past there and, in about three minutes, you will fly over the spectacular Niagara Falls and onto the rocks below.

It won’t be a happy ending to your day.

Once you pass this point, agency is gone. Choices disappear. Engaging in a power struggle over who steers the ship would be ludicrous.

I wrote this on the occasion of the national debt passing $16 trillion. Today, as a small faction of Republicans in the House keeps that body from passing a funding bill that would have any chance of making it through the Democratically controlled Senate, the debt has just passed another milestone — $33 trillion

And it’s growing at an incomprehensibly fast rate.

The flaw in my Niagara Falls analogy is that there is no clear marker, no whitewater rapids alongside an island, no red line on a ledger to show the limit of the nation’s debt. It’s a mystery. And so, we keep sailing. 

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But when we hit the point of no return, the current demands of the House Freedom Caucus, or what Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene now calls the “burn-it-all-down caucus,” will seem tame.

Interest payments and other government obligations will begin to multiply. Investors will lose confidence in the nation’s ability to meet its obligations. The interest demanded on U.S. debt will rise. Washington will have little choice but to inflate the dollar to make payments. Taxes will rise along with unemployment. Brutal cuts will be mandated, including to Social Security. The nation’s ability to fund a first-rate military will be compromised.

Oh sure, we’re good so far. According to usdebtclock.org, the federal debt now equals 122% of economic output, and yet those horrible things have not happened. That doesn’t mean we can let our own applause drown out the sound of the approaching falls.

To be clear, the Freedom Caucus isn’t helping matters. Making demands and digging heels in the ground should never be confused with leadership. Moderate Republican Rep. Mike Lawler of New York eloquently described the warring factions of his party earlier this week as “a clown show.”

Representative government can be messy. That is a virtue. It’s the only way to account for a variety of interests and opinions. Deadlines, such as the one for funding the government by Sept. 30, are pressure points politicians can use to force change. 

And yet, after more than a decade of fiscal cliffs, sequestrations and shutdowns, these pressure points have produced no change at all.

No Labels, a self-proclaimed commonsense group that is threatening to run a third-party presidential ticket next year, emailed a list of things that would happen if politicians let the government shut down. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers would be furloughed, food wouldn’t be inspected and security lines would grow at airports as TSA workers experience shortages. 

The nation’s stature abroad would suffer. “Americans like to think we are the world’s greatest democracy, but that’s a hard claim to make when we can’t even keep the lights on,” the email said.

Republicans blame expensive Democratic programs for the problem. The New York Times reported last week that the Inflation Reduction Act is expected to cost more than $1 trillion over the next decade, rather than the original estimate of $400 billion. COVID-19 relief programs continue to cost the government.

Democrats blame Republicans for enacting tax cuts, and they note that COVID-19 relief programs were started under President Donald Trump. 

But blame isn’t going to solve this mess. Only real, sober, bipartisan leadership, involving the White House and leaders from both parties, can do that. Both parties have refused to consider overhauling Social Security or Medicare, and yet serious fiscal reform can’t happen without this.

That will take hard work; the kind that comes at a political cost.

A government shutdown at the end of the month doesn’t qualify as any kind of hard work.

Meanwhile, The New York Times estimates the national debt will reach $50 trillion by the end of this decade. Does anyone hear rushing water?