PREPARE, IN THE coming weeks, for repeated readings of this quote: “The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. Leadership means that ‘the buck stops here.’ Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better. I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.”
The date was March 2006 and the speaker, as you no doubt have guessed, was then-Sen. Barack Obama. The future president was certainly not alone in playing debt-ceiling politics, but it is fair to jab him for having done so. Now Congress is approaching, within the next month or two, another vote to raise the debt ceiling, and the politics are far more difficult this time around.
And that makes this week’s fight over shutting the federal government even more worrisome than it appears on the surface, which is worrisome enough. As expensive and burdensome as a shutdown is, the risk to the nation of failing to raise the debt ceiling could be far greater. Moreover, the issues that will be on the table — that is, the long-term fiscal picture — will be far more momentous and complex than the handful of riders and few billion dollars under dispute this week. These protracted budget negotiations could have served as useful practice for both sides, forging a bond for future talks. Instead, the episode seems to be leaving a legacy of distrust on both sides, with muttering about reneging on deals and bargaining in bad faith.
The brinkmanship underscores the importance of having all parties, including the White House, engage early enough to make certain that the debt ceiling issue is resolved in a timely and constructive way. It’s clear that there will not be enough Republican support for an up-or-down vote on the debt ceiling itself. Some conditions will have to be attached — reforms in the budget process, broader agreement on future spending levels — to lure enough Republican votes to secure passage. The White House needs to participate in shaping those conditions at a far earlier stage than it did during the shutdown debate.
As to what those conditions might be, we retain some shred of hope that the bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Six will come forward with a productive contribution. The group is working off a blueprint produced by the fiscal commission that the president convened and then abandoned. Perhaps the fact that the other main alternative on the table is the considerably less centrist plan put forward by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will lure the White House into the fray. Some advocates of entitlement reform hold out slight hope that Social Security — the easiest of the long-term issues to resolve, at least in theory — might be addressed in the context of the debt-ceiling vote, or at least before the 2012 election.
We hope they are right; progress on Social Security would send a reassuring signal of the political system’s ability to get something done. But the follies of the past few weeks are not encouraging. Certainly, without the emergence of presidential leadership, it’s impossible to imagine how a breakthrough can be achieved.