THIS WEEKEND’S actions in Congress, as members of the House and Senate wrangle with the debt ceiling and with each other, will be difficult to watch. Both the debt crisis and the political breakdown surrounding it are unsettling for all Americans. Not only must the debt ceiling be raised, but the political crisis must abate enough to reassure global financial markets that the United States will always honor its debts and obligations.
This is the overwhelming consensus of economists, and the stated aim of President Obama and the leaders of both parties in Congress. The roadblock throughout the process has been the refusal of some House Republicans to consider any increase in the debt ceiling, and the take-it-or-leave-it insistence of others on tying their support to wholly unrealistic demands. This is not only unconscionable, but deeply confusing to everyone watching the debate because it paints the issue in false and misleading terms.
It is not correct to say, as so many Tea Party denizens do, that raising the debt ceiling gives anyone, least of all the president, “a blank check.’’ Raising the debt ceiling allows the government to sell bonds to pay for expenses already budgeted by Congress. It does not increase spending. It does not promote more borrowing. If the government spends less it will borrow less, no matter how high the debt ceiling. Refusing to raise the debt ceiling is not, as some Tea Party leaders present it, like declining to take out a new credit card; it’s more like taking a pair of scissors to the credit card you already have and ignoring the unpaid balance. This doesn’t just fail to solve the problem; it makes it vastly worse by destroying your credit rating and ensuring higher interest rates for existing bills.
The response of those resisting the ceiling hike is not an argument, but rather a series of slogans culled from political ads. “Enough is enough.’’ “No more business as usual.’’ “It’s time that Washington gets the message.’’ These lines appeal to conservative talk-radio listeners, who have enough power in presidential and congressional primaries that many Republicans and even some Democrats are reluctant to correct the record. They are more interested in showing that they “get it’’ - that they hear the anger - than they are in explaining the actual effects of failing to raise the debt ceiling.
There is still some hope and expectation that cooler heads will prevail. Some Senate Republicans, including John McCain, are already openly taking on the extremists in the House. This may sound like more political posturing, but it’s patriotic and necessary. Paying the government’s bills is not a subject for debate. It’s a responsibility assigned to the elected branches and especially to the House of Representatives, where the budgeting process begins. And seeking agreement among all branches is not a concession but a necessity. It’s fundamental to the American system of government.
Sadly, it looks like many of the important choices needed to control government spending and preserve entitlement programs will get kicked to the next election. If so, there are some lessons voters must take from the current crisis. Whatever one’s views, it is essential to support policies, not slogans, and to elect officials who accept the responsibilities of governing rather than endlessly campaigning.