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Opinion It’s time to cancel Congress’s debt ceiling theatrics

Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) in the House chamber on Jan. 5. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)
4 min

This “Perils of Pauline” debt ceiling cliffhanger is a cheap political show that Congress should just grow up and stop staging. It’s tiresome, and it wastes time and energy best spent on things that matter, such as serious, substantive fiscal reforms and addressing the root causes of the rising national debt.

Increasing the statutory debt limit is a must. It should not be held hostage by sensation-seeking Republican foghorns who can’t tell the debt ceiling from ceiling tile.

After all, raising the debt ceiling is essentially a ministerial legislative act. I learned that, and more, when I became a Treasury Department deputy assistant secretary for legislative affairs in my early days with President Jimmy Carter’s administration.

Read letters in response to this column.

Gene Godley, an old congressional hand and Treasury Secretary Mike Blumenthal’s chief legislative affairs director, patiently explained that the administration’s initial effort in February 1979 to raise the ceiling would get shot down in Congress. Sure enough. Godley, who had seen that act before, advised Blumenthal and the Carter White House that members of Congress eager to show some fiscal frugality to the folks back home would cast no votes, even though most knew then — as lawmakers on the Hill know now — that the debt limit has nothing to do with new spending. It was a cheap political “show” vote. And sure enough, the debt ceiling was raised in 1979, as has always been the case.

And it will be done now, provided House Republicans have half a brain.

Ramesh Ponnuru: The scariest part of the debt ceiling impasse: Washington isn’t scared

How many ways are there to explain this situation? Increasing the debt limit allows the country — the United States of America — to meet obligations already authorized by Congress. Obligations, to explain further, to holders of U.S. debt, including our largest foreign debt holders, Japan followed by China, as well as the Social Security Trust Fund and other institutions and individual investors.

We, the people, are legally obligated to those creditors. The full faith and credit of the United States is on the line. A U.S. debt default would be cataclysmic both at home and abroad.

The thought of Congress standing by while the United States and world economy go down the tubes is unthinkable — until you hear the kind of nonsense coming out of the mouths of House Republicans such as Rep. Bob Good (Va.), who climbed atop a chair at a town hall in rural Louisa County and told his constituents that under no circumstances would he vote to increase the debt ceiling without “commensurate cuts in spending.” Good knows full well — or at least he should know full well — that imposing immediate cuts of that magnitude would trigger financial chaos and business failures throughout the country.

For a clue as to his views on the budget, Good said there is no room for spending on “diversity, equity and inclusion stuff, CRT stuff, transgender stuff” in any agency or environmental measures in military spending, which he said should be vigorous but “accountable.” Tells you a lot about what his game is.

But while we’re at it, let’s look at federal spending when President Donald Trump was at the helm. Most House Republicans were in Washington at the time.

Hugh Hewitt: Okay, GOP: What’s the ‘ask’ on the debt showdown?

According to the conservative Manhattan Institute, when Trump entered the Oval Office, the Congressional Budget Office projected the cumulative 2017-2027 budget deficits would be $10 trillion. Missed by a mile. When Trump left office four years later, the CBO projected deficits for the same period were $13.9 trillion.

Where were congressional Republican budget hawks when Trump signed or enacted $7.8 trillion in new initiatives over a decade? That’s compared with $5 trillion for President Barack Obama and $6.9 trillion for President George W. Bush. Moreover, Trump added his costs in a single four-year presidential term, compared with his predecessors’ eight years in the Oval Office. Meanwhile, with Trump as boss, GOP fiscal conservatives studied their shoe tops.

Now, with President Biden in the White House, there’s Republican showboating like there’s no tomorrow.

At issue this year, as has been true in the past, is whether there are enough legislators with their heads screwed on straight to understand that the U.S. government cannot default on its legal obligations. That it is unconscionable to hold the full faith and credit of the country hostage to craven political threats, and that the debt limit unquestionably must be raised. That doing so is nonnegotiable.

Show’s over. Bring down the curtain.