December 3, 2012

Congress can’t do anything without a gun to its head. And even then, it is way too willing to play Russian Roulette. As we saw last year during the scuffle over raising the debt ceiling, Congress came very close to pulling the trigger on a gun loaded with bullets. This year’s down-to-the-wire machinations over “the austerity crisis” (a.k.a. the fiscal cliff) includes a proposal from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner that ought to be adopted.

As part of the plan to head off the latest manufactured, but very serious crisis, Geithner wants to wrest the power to raise the limit on the nation’s borrowing away from Capitol Hill. Basically, as The Post explained on Friday, he proposes making permanent the system devised by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to avoid a debt-ceiling calamity last year. While the White House could raise the limit on its own, Congress could reject it by majority vote. An all-but-certain presidential veto could then be overridden by a supermajority of Congress.


After staring into the abyss of the first-ever default by the United States, what Geithner proposes to safeguard the full faith and credit of the United States is sensible and more than reasonable. Thankfully, some folks who live and breathe this fiscal stuff I contacted think so, too. Some with more enthusiasm than others.

“We want them to get a deal,” was all Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, could muster when I asked her for a reaction to Geithner’s debt ceiling idea. That the noted deficit hawk didn’t dismiss it outright, I took as a good sign.

Jim Horney, vice president for federal fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, was decidedly more enthusiastic. “I think it is a terrific idea,” he said. “It would prevent us from facing the possibility of default or being held hostage by Congress. It would be better just to get rid of the debt limit, but Congress almost certainly would not agree to that. This would allow some members of Congress to continue to grandstand on the debt limit, but they could not do real harm.” Matt Yglesias at Slate echoed Horney’s last point in a blog post on Friday.

The debt-ceiling craziness wasn’t without cost. There was the downgrade in U.S. creditworthiness by Standard and Poor’s, which dealt a blow to national pride and pocketbook. But as Steve Bell, senior director of the Economic Policy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), pointed out there are other costs involved in a debt-ceiling showdown that would be saved if Geithner’s solution were adopted.

“Certainly, financial markets would probably be relieved if the president’s proposal on the debt ceiling were to become law,” Bell wrote in an e-mail.  “Indeed, the [Government] Accountability Office issued a report earlier this year that showed that last year’s debt ceiling showdown cost the federal government $1.3 billion. We at BPC estimate that, using GAO’s methodology, last year’s showdown will cost $19 billion over the next 10 years. That is the approximate cost that CBO estimated last year that the ‘doc fix’ for Medicare would cost. So, the present system, when it runs into legislative confrontations, is not costless. It costs real money.”

Speaker John Boehner (R) pretty much called the Geithner debt-ceiling proposal dead on arrival. “Congress is never going to give up this power,” he said on Fox News Sunday. Color me shocked. But if Boehner’s resistance proves successful, the folks at the centrist think tank Third Way have an idea.

“We’re glad to see that the White House is pushing to resolve the debt limit component within the larger package” to avoid the fiscal cliff, said Gabriel Horwitz, director of Third Way’s economic program. “However, we assume the GOP will be pushing back hard on any permanent solution. We actually came out recently with a middle ground solution on this that might just work as a compromise.” That middle ground would allow the debt ceiling to rise automatically “as long as fiscally responsible debt targets are achieved,” Horwitz said. “This change would enable fiscal certainty and responsibility, all while avoiding the threat of default.”

The idea is an interesting one, but I asked Horwitz why it wasn’t a reasonable idea to force Congress to reverse a debt-ceiling increase by the president, he said, “Our first preference would be for the president’s proposal on the debt-ceiling, but in case it doesn’t happen, ours would be a back-up plan.” Great. I’m all for anything that would prevent Congress from playing Russian Roulette with the nation’s financial standing ever again.

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.