Mr. Boehner’s lamentable desire to repeat bad history

May 16, 2012

IT’S NOT OFTEN that a senior political figure announces an intention to behave irresponsibly and risk inflicting great harm on the U.S. economy. It’s even rarer that the politician, having already behaved irresponsibly and inflicted harm on the U.S. economy, announces his intention to do so again.

Yet that is the situation in which House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has placed himself. In a speech Tuesday to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s fiscal summit, he vowed to use the next debt-ceiling debate to extract additional spending cuts as the price of lifting the country’s borrowing limit.

“Yes, allowing America to default would be irresponsible,” Mr. Boehner said. “But it would be more irresponsible to raise the debt ceiling without taking dramatic steps to reduce spending and reform the budget process.” Actually, no. It would be more irresponsible to risk — again — the United States’ credit rating.

We share Mr. Boehner’s deep concern about the rising federal debt. We have called for Congress and the president to put the country on a sustainable fiscal path before a crisis ensues. We sympathize with the speaker’s notion that the government won’t act unless forced to do so. “We shouldn’t dread the debt limit,” Mr. Boehner said Tuesday. “We should welcome it. It’s an action-forcing event in a town that has become infamous for inaction.”

There was a point, we confess, when we too hoped that debt-limit brinkmanship might encourage responsible behavior. Then came last summer’s debacle. The country moved closer to the edge of default than anyone had thought imaginable. The U.S. credit rating was downgraded for the first time in history, and the resulting uncertainty and lack of confidence dragged down the economy.

And for what? For no real progress. Yes, the deal that ultimately emerged provided for nearly $1 trillion in cuts over 10 years. But the real hope, to the extent there was any, was in the creation of a congressional supercommittee that was empowered to come up with a broader solution and charged with producing another $1.2 trillion in cuts. The supercommittee super-failed. The debate now revolves around how to defuse the trigger of looming, draconian cuts that had been intended to assure the panel’s success. The action-forcing event did not force the necessary action.

So it is appalling that Mr. Boehner would be willing to repeat this dangerous episode, this time at potentially even greater risk. The Treasury is on target to hit the debt limit by early next year. Mr. Boehner said he will insist on additional spending cuts at least as large as the increase in the ceiling. Speaking to the same gathering, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner warned that another round of brinkmanship would be irresponsible and expressed hope that Congress will act without “the drama and the pain and the damage they caused the country last July.”

Unfortunately, a second act in the debt ceiling tragedy looks likelier than Mr. Geithner’s vision of adult behavior.

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