House vote to extend debt ceiling shows subpar leadership


(Chip Somodevilla)
January 23, 2013

Here we go again.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives intends to vote on a measure that will extend the debt ceiling for three months, ignoring the issue altogether until May 18. The strategy will delay a partisan fight over the limit. It will also force Senate Democrats to pass a formal budget resolution, as the measure requires that lawmakers’ paychecks be withheld “unless Congress adopts a comprehensive blueprint for spending and tax policy.”

Let’s think about that for a minute. First: Rather than actually negotiate about the debt ceiling and come up with a long-term solution, our so-called leaders are kicking the can down the road for a few months yet again. Second: They’re not doing so because there’s a plan in the works that needs more time to get sorted out—rather, they’re using it as leverage to get Senate Democrats to do something they haven’t done for years. In other words, this isn’t about jointly solving a problem, this is about two sides seeing who can win. Third: It has become so hard to get anyone in Congress to do anything that threats of taking away their own paychecks is the only way to spur action. Whatever happened to these jobs being about public service?

All of that is frustrating enough. But here comes the White House’s response: Spokesperson Jay Carney said this is “a very significant development in reducing the conflict over this and reducing the fear over a process that had always had the potential spinning out of control.” The White House takes “heart from the numerous statements of Republicans leading up to this decision,” Carney said, while Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (R-Nev.) praised it as “a clean debt ceiling bill.”

I get that such a solution is far better than default, or than risking the full faith and credit of the United States. A clean short-term extension is certainly preferable to taking this problem even closer to the brink. But that’s the thing: We have come to a point in this country where the consequences are so dire, the potential downsides so disastrous, that postponing the hard work of solving our problems has actually become a good thing. We’ve become so accustomed to this new spectrum of good and bad outcomes that, as Aaron Blake wrote for The Fix blog on Tuesday, the “overwhelming sentiment” seems to be “we didn’t get a big deal, but we averted catastrophe.”

Forgive me, but that is no way to run a country. Yes, it’s great we may be on our way to avoiding financial catastrophe—but for how long? Three months? And then what? Even if the Senate does pass a budget, and everyone gets paid, which next crisis will also get its own short-term extension in lieu of a meaningful solution?

The biggest problems we face as a country are not really ones of high deficits or dysfunctional Senate rules or problematic spending. It is the willingness of our leaders to find a way to rise above the fray and do something about them. To be satisfied with short-term fixes is to be satisfied with subpar leadership. We may have to swallow them for now to avoid disaster. But we should be happy with neither one.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

More from On Leadership:

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Obama’s leadership shift on values

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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