Congress has a pathological spending problem
© Greg Nash

This week, Nancy Pelosi and Steven Mnunchin are both advocating for a “clean” debt ceiling hike. Sounds good, right? Clean must be better than dirty.

Wrong. This is just more misdirection from politicians.

There is no virtue in a “clean” debt ceiling increase. In fact, anytime a politician is advocating for a “clean” piece of legislation, chances are, he or she is trying to avoid the hard work of change.

The word “clean,” when it refers to legislation, means without addition or amendment. So a “clean” debt ceiling hike means raising the debt ceiling without considering amendments to curb spending or deal with the rising debt in any way. They want it to sound virtuous, so they choose a word like “clean,” but what they really mean is they want to continue irresponsible behavior exactly as they have been.


The debt ceiling is an extremely practical tool that can be used as a means to check out of control spending. With the fiscally conservative Republican majority in the House and Senate, some prudent spending measures stand a good chance of being enacted when the debt ceiling is reached this summer.

For instance, lawmakers could cap discretionary spending as they did in the Budget Control Act of 2011. Additionally, they could select some of the specific cuts from President Trump’s budget (or their own budgets from years past), and directly affect the dangerously steep spending curb.

They also have a decent shot at reforming the budgeting and spending process. One way they could make positive change is to return to limiting the debt to an actual dollar figure. A few years ago, they began suspending the debt ceiling rather than raising it. This action gives more flexibility to the Treasury, but also allow the debt to rise at a faster rate. 

All of these measures would be fiscally responsible and would help stave off the coming debt crisis. None of them are austere or extreme. In fact, they’re all more modest than President Trump’s budget or Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanNew Dem ad uses Paterno, KKK, affair allegations to tar GOP leaders House Dem: Party's aging leaders is 'a problem' Rand Paul to ask Trump to lift sanctions on Russian leaders MORE’s last budget. There is widespread support for these types of spending reductions, and more certainty would certainty spur economic growth.

But anyone advocating for a “clean” increase wants to avoid all of this altogether. A “clean” debt ceiling increase would mean none of these responsible measures would be enacted or even considered. Congress would have effectively kicked the can down the road on one of our country’s most pressing issues without even taking a beat to consider reform.

Sanctimonious politicians lecture us every day Americans about responsible legislating. They come down the mountain to crow about noble-sounding things like a “clean” debt ceiling hike when that is the least responsible option on the table.

If reaching the maximum amount of debt set by law is not a good time to consider spending reductions, I don’t know when is. If $20 trillion is not enough debt, I don’t know how much is. All I do know is that “clean” is definitely the wrong word for Congress’s pathological avoidance of spending cuts.

Thomas Binion is the director of Congressional and Executive Branch Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.