House Republicans aren't voting to lift the debt ceiling. They're voting to suspend it for three months. It's an entirely political, meaningless distinction, but it points the way towards an entirely sensible, overdue solution.
As Suzy Khimm reports, temporarily suspending the debt-ceiling raises some troubling technical questions. But it also sets a delightful precedent. Congress will have shown it can make the debt ceiling disappear. For three months, the debt ceiling simply won't exist. And it won't exist for exactly the right reasons.
House Republicans are choosing to "suspend" rather than "increase" because it sounds really bad to say you voted for an increase in the debt ceiling. What, $16.4 trillion in debt isn't enough for you?
Well, no, it's not. It's not enough even if we pass Paul Ryan's budget tomorrow. It's not enough even if we begin bringing the debt-to-GDP ratio down.The debt ceiling isn't adjusted for inflation or economic growth. It's just raw dollars. So even when our finances are fully in order and the national debt is holding steady or declining as a percentage of our economy, we typically still have to raise the debt ceiling. That's why, in 1997, when we the economy was booming and a surplus was around the corner, Congress had to raise the debt ceiling by $450 billion.
But that takes a long time to explain, and you have to use the words "inflation" and "economic growth" and "absolute dollars" a lot. Those aren't words that really work when you're responding to a challenger's attack advertisement, and politicians know it. That's why they hate voting to increase the debt ceiling, even when the budget is under control.
So the debt ceiling is a hard, unpleasant vote that needs to be taken in good times and bad. As such, it's a hard, unpleasant vote that can go wrong at any time, simply because the politics of the vote are completely out of whack with the necessity of the vote. Republicans are admitting that when they choose to "suspend" the debt ceiling rather than raise it -- this way, no one can accuse them of raising it, even though that's exactly what they've done. The only problem with their plan is it doesn't go far enough. We shouldn't suspend the debt ceiling for three months. We should suspend it forever, completely eliminating the threat that this hard, unpleasant, confusing vote could go wrong and unleash economic havoc.