Debt-ceiling debate is not a game

Some call it a game of chicken. Some liken it to a game of Russian roulette. Whatever you call it, the potential for failing to raise our nation’s debt limit during this fledgling economic recovery should not be treated like the positioning of a political chess piece.

The question of whether to raise the debt ceiling is not a game.

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The United States is at a unique moment in its economic history, and this Congress should treat that moment with the respect it deserves. We have a debt and deficit problem so severe that significant long-term action is needed to ensure that we come out of this recession and avoid permanently jeopardizing our nation’s economic growth.

One way or another, we are going to have to confront the structural budget challenges that are the root cause of the federal deficit. That means taking a serious look at entitlement programs, Pentagon spending and comprehensive tax reform that generates additional revenue. It is ludicrous to think we can balance the budget solely by trimming non-security discretionary programs.

Real progress in reducing our deficit can’t wait, which is why Democratic votes in favor of raising the debt ceiling from its current $14.29 trillion — as the White House has urged — should not be taken for granted. 

Rather, it is incumbent on the leadership of both parties to take seriously the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson commission and pursue a legislative framework that would implement many of its recommendations and start to get our rapidly growing debt under control. 

If we do not substantively address our deficit now we will certainly be confronted with having to raise the debt ceiling again in short order. 

Congress must set aside the typical partisan rancor for the sake of making real progress. 

Thankfully, there are very few in the Senate who, I believe, still fail to accept the true depth of this crisis. But just as worrisome are those who were cheering to “shut it down” during the FY 2011 continuing resolution debate and now outright refuse to even consider raising the debt limit. 

This is a time for shared sacrifice, not absolutism.

In the course of the negotiations over the long-term continuing resolution, the widely shared goal of reducing discretionary spending was hijacked by those who saw an opportunity to prosecute ideological battles that had no business being part of a budget negotiation.

Observers were quick to note then that the budget deal was a precursor to the debate over the debt ceiling we’re now having. 

As embarrassing as it was to be brought to the brink of a shutdown, the debate over the debt ceiling is far more serious to the nation and the global economy. This is a situation where even talk has consequences. 

When Standard & Poor’s took the unprecedented step of assigning the United States its first negative outlook in the nation’s rating history last month, it sent a ripple through the global market. 

The next step — a reduction in our nation’s AAA bond rating — would send the dollar into a tailspin and stunt our economic recovery, undoing the real progress made over the last three years and shaking recent growth in critical market sectors. Our interest rates would soar, which would siphon more money out of our annual budget to pay the higher cost of borrowing. It would take years to rebuild the confidence of investors that we’d lose in the process, and might take generations to finally bring this crisis to an end.

We must act now. We cannot afford for America to become an unsafe investment, whether by defaulting on our debt or by continuing to allow our deficit to spiral unchecked.

Both paths bring the United States to the same perilous place, and while the consequences of not raising our debt ceiling create a useful political urgency that many of us looking for a serious debate on the deficit have long sought, they do not grant members of Congress impunity to ignore their responsibility to grow our economy and get Americans back to work.

The millions of unemployed Americans don’t think our nation’s economy is a game. Neither should Congress.

Coons is a member of the Senate Budget Committee.