What the looming debt ceiling fight (yes, another one) tells us

March 20, 2013

At some point in coming weeks, Congress will have to authorize an increase in the debt limit, and give Treasury the authority it needs to borrow additional funds and pay the nation’s bills. The key thing to remember is this isn’t new borrowing — Congress has already made the commitments, and raising the debt limit is the only way to meet them.

Not that this matters to the GOP. House Republicans are already planning the next fight over the debt ceiling, and as was true in 2011, they want spending cuts as compensation for raising the limit. Here’s Politico with more:

House Speaker John Boehner’s majority has cut so deep into discretionary spending, they know they cannot go any deeper. So this time, to raise the nation’s debt cap — something GOP leadership estimates is likely to happen in July — they are moving on to tweaking entitlements.

“You can’t cut the discretionary spending,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) said. “You can’t do this forever based on discretionary spending. You’re going to have to get to entitlements.”

The GOP’s theory on the debt limit, it seems, is that regular authorization wouldn’t be necessary if the federal government could just limit its spending and “live within its means.” But that’s not true. Even under the balanced budget plans presented by Paul Ryan and the Republican Study Committee, there are periods where the government will have to run a deficit in order to fulfill its obligations — it’s a fact of accounting for the United States, and has been for over a century. Further spending cuts may slow the rate at which we reach the debt ceiling, but that’s the extent of it. There’s simply not a budget path that doesn’t require occasional increases in the borrowing limit of the United States.

It should also be said that this provides additional evidence of the insincerity of the GOP’s professed concern about entitlement spending creating an unsustainable debt crisis. President Obama has already said he would not make concessions in order to raise the debt limit, and that includes entitlement cuts. Instead, as he’s made clear for almost two years, he’ll support cuts to Medicare and Social Security if they come with new revenue. If the “debt crisis” is as urgent as Republicans describe, then this is a deal worth taking.

As it stands, the GOP has no interest in making this trade, and would rather resort to stunts and hostage taking to achieve its goals. Given the risks of the Republican approach — slower growth and a weaker economy — the talk of a new debt ceiling standoff should stand as obvious proof that this push for new spending cuts is less about the country’s fiscal future, and far more about dismantling key parts of the social safety net.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.

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Greg Sargent | March 20, 2013