The debt ceiling debate: Stupid, but dangerous

Since 1947 we have had periods of sound fiscal policy and periods of run away deficits. The regular votes for changes in the debt limit accommodated both. As the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations cut the public debt from more than 100 percent of GDP to about 25 percent, the Congress gleefully lowered the debt ceiling. When tax cuts and the military spending of the Reagan administration pushed the gross public debt from 31 percent of GDP in 1981 to 65 percent by the end of the first Bush administration, Congress went along every time. Presidents Reagan and Bush signed every increase.

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The reason that Congress has voted for the debt increase is not that any of them looked forward to telling their constituents that they favored increased indebtedness, but because debt limits don’t control spending or the tax legislation necessary to pay for spending. Debt limits simply allow the U.S. Treasury to take the steps necessary to pay the bills that earlier legislative actions have created.

You might compare a decision to block an increase in the debt limit to that of a father who is so angered by the excessive spending he finds on the credit card he has given his son that he refuses to pay the credit card company the $500 in charges. Later he finds that he is not only being sued by the credit card company, but that his deteriorating credit score has precluded him from refinancing his house, a move that would have saved him thousands.

Debt limit votes not only place the good faith and credit of the U.S. at unnecessary risk, but also inject a destructive element of confusion into our public discourse that erodes the accountability of public officials.

More than once in my three decades in working for Congress I witnessed the very members who led the charge in placing unconscionable earmarks in appropriation bills and outrageous special-interest carve outs in the tax code turn around and pose as fiscal purists by opposing an increase in the debt limit -— an increase which was made necessary in part by their own fiscal irresponsibility.

That is not unlike what is going on in the Congress right now. More than a few of the conservative leaders now traveling to the White House to say no to a new debt level were in Congress in 2001, 2002 and 2003 when we lost our fiscal footing and put the nation of the deficit trajectory that has led to the sad necessity of raising the ceiling.

But what is perhaps the least talked-about aspect of the current debt confrontation is that the budget resolution that passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in April — which would result in the debt growing from less than the current $14.3 trillion where it is today to $23.1 trillion in the next decade — is an increase of $8.8 trillion dollars, or 62 percent. That is more than four times the amount of borrowing that the president has requested authority for and there is virtually nothing in that resolution that would prevent the government from running out of money in the next few weeks.

If Congress needs a vehicle to extort concessions from the executive branch it has appropriation bills, trade bills and numerous other alternatives. It does not need to make the threat of making the United Sates a dead beat as a means of promoting its agenda.

This is not just a meaningless exercise; it is a dangerous and meaningless exercise.

Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He has also served as the staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, minority staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, executive director of the House Democratic Study Group, executive director of the Joint Economic Committee, and chief of staff for Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.).