Let’s Be Honest About the Debt Limit

October 22, 2015

Here we go again. The federal government has predictably maxed out its credit card for the fifth time in the last four years. The Treasury Department now insists there will be “catastrophic economic consequences” unless the debt limit is raised by November 3.

If that wasn’t depressing enough, consider that Congress has less than two weeks left to solve this problem; a problem we knew was coming for over eighteen months.

Worse, there are currently no plans to take up legislation dealing with the debt ceiling this week and the halls of Congress are curiously silent when it comes to discussion of when, and how, such a bill will be considered in the House and Senate. That’s right, the most powerful government in the world is supposedly on the verge of financial crisis and no one seems to care.
Two things can be inferred from this sorry state of affairs. Either we don’t want to increase the debt ceiling, and would instead like to transition to a balanced federal budget overnight, or Congress is intentionally waiting until the last minute in an effort to push through legislation increasing the debt ceiling with no strings attached. Given the bipartisan freak-out in the past, there seems to be little doubt as to which one is correct.

I hope I am wrong. The American people deserve better. Congress should not sit idly by as our national debt soars beyond $18 trillion. The interest payments alone on our existing debt are already higher than what we spend on education, training, employment, and social services combined.

We must begin the painful but necessary work of confronting the threat posed by our exorbitant national debt.

Historically, the federal government’s debt limit has served as a limited but effective check on our nation’s debt. It played a roll in the Gramm-Rudman Act of 1985 and of course the most effective deficit reduction measure of the Obama era, the Budget Control Act of 2011, which cut spending by $1.5 trillion over ten years.

Unfortunately, after the BCA, Congress seems to have lost the will to use the debt limit as a deficit reduction tool.

In 2013, Congress passed a debt limit hike, using a “resolution of disapproval” fig leaf to cover their tracks. Under that parliamentary trick, Congress gave President Obama the authority to raise the debt limit, but under the pretense that the authority could be rescinded if both chambers passed resolutions disapproving the hike.

The House did later vote to disapprove Obama’s new debt limit, but following the prearranged script, the subsequent Senate vote failed. Twenty-seven senators used this cover to give Obama the authority to raise the debt limit but then later claim they voted to disapprove it.

Worse in 2014, Congress dropped all pretense of fiscal responsibility, passing a debt limit hike, or a “suspension” as they called, without any fiscal reform attached.

The American people deserve better. And there are plenty of good policy ideas out there about how to proceed. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has proposed a “Cut, Cap, and Balance” plan that would cut the 2016 deficit in half, cap spending going forward on a path to balance by 2021, and require Congress to pass a balanced budget, all before allowing the debt limit to rise.

Another good idea is Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-Pa.) Full Faith and Credit Act, which would make explicit the Treasury Department’s implicit power to manage our nation’s various financial obligations, requiring the Department to prioritize obligations related to Social Security, military pay, and debt held by the public, in the event the nation’s borrowing limit were reached.

At a bare minimum, Republicans must insist that Democrats end their filibusters of every 2015 appropriations bill. How can conservatives trust any fiscal deal if Democrats are allowed to take the appropriations process hostage in hopes of securing higher spending for their pet projects?

Another short-term debt-limit hike, or “suspension,” would only perpetuate the broken “government-by-crisis” pattern too many in Washington have grown accustomed to.

It’s time for Congress to be honest about the nation’s fiscal situation and do what’s necessary – including working more than three days a week – to pursue the bold, creative reforms that will put the federal government back on a sound budgetary trajectory.

Op-ed originally published in The Hill