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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Dancing on debt ceiling

by John Brummett | January 19, 2023 at 2:41 a.m.

The federal government has no option other than to raise the debt limit, which is why we should worry that Congress won't do it.

Did you watch on television the other day as the House of Representatives tried to pick a speaker? Did anything you saw reassure you that those people have the good sense to do simply what must be done no matter the partisan or ego advantage?

We have a rather silly law that caps the nation's accumulated debt even though everybody knows we're going to need to keep borrowing as long as we run a budget deficit. Any continued spending on even a major deficit-reducing level will entail the continued piling up of necessary debt that at some point will again run into the debt limit.

A sane approach would be to eliminate a statutory ceiling and instead use the energy of this periodic drama on real spending reform achieved in the day-to-day course of making budgets reflecting national priorities. But Republicans cut taxes when they get the chance, and Democrats start new programs when they get the chance. Real spending cuts are hard because, to achieve significant numbers, they must affect defense, Social Security and Medicare.

When the federal government is divided, as now with the Republicans in charge of the House and the Democrats controlling the Senate and White House, there often is brinkmanship with each side seeking not a national solution, but a partisan edge.

That was the case in 2011 when the nation's credit rating was lowered because of the uncertainty on raising the debt ceiling. Eventually, we, of course, agreed to pay debts.

And it is the case now. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says we'll reach the debt ceiling ... today, as it happens. She says the department can, as in 2011, move some money around to pay debts until maybe June.

House Republicans, flexing their little muscles with the one element of government they control if narrowly, insist they won't go along with raising the debt ceiling absent negotiations with Democrats on nondiscretionary spending cuts, meaning not in defense or, most likely, Social Security and Medicare.

The White House declares--with Biden saying this time what Barack Obama said in 2011--that you don't negotiate on whether to pay debt you've already taken on.

Household budget analogies always get made on this issue, and all are imprecise. But this one seems passable: A family is putting some of its essential bills--utilities, for example--on the Visa card, on which mom and dad make minimum payments monthly. They're running an operating deficit. The card's credit limit gets reached. So, the family sits down and begins hard talks on how to cut spending going forward, until, that is, the lights go out on the family discussion because the automatic electric-bill draft came through the Visa account and didn't get paid because of the absence of available funds.

You can't leverage a new budget for the future against obligations compiled in the past.

Most everyone rolls their eyes and says we've been here before and predicts we'll preen and posture and end up raising the limit. But something about the current situation is worrisome.

It is that our politics has become even more popularized and dysfunctional with allegiance to partisan interest exceeding interest in solutions, and with the decline of a competent center willing to show a little moderate muscle.

With both sides more interested than ever before in blaming each other than in working things out, each side might sense a political advantage for a period extending past the drop-dead default day.

Republicans are working on specific spending-cut ideas they think will be popular. They're apt to think that might leave the Democrats the political losers by appearing to oppose fiscal responsibility and standing ultimately responsible for the debt catastrophe.

Democrats would have reason to think otherwise--that, since they have more of the government than Republicans, any default with dire consequence would be seen as silly obstructionism blame-able on the same Republican yahoos who went through 14 votes before simple election of the speaker they apparently were going to pick all along.

A lot of this global financial contemplation will get made by political consultants running polls and assembling focus groups.

Somebody would eventually give in, but damage in the meantime of an American debt default of any duration could be lasting. It has always been considered important to borrowing money that you have a reassuring record of timely payback. A nation living by borrowed money doesn't need to miss payments.

The solution is for moderates--they call themselves "problem solvers" in a bipartisan centrist caucus--to come out from under their desks and piece together enough votes to do the obvious: Be competent and put the nation first.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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