Something the US debt limit doesn't do: limit debt

By Walter R. Mears

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Aug. 1 2011 5:15 p.m. MDT

President Barack Obama speaks from the White House briefing room, Sunday, July 31, 2011, in Washington, about a deal being reached to raise the debt limit.

Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The federal debt limit is a triumph of false advertising.

It doesn't really limit the national debt. Whenever the false ceiling has been reached, it has been raised — forcing unpopular votes in Congress, but not the really hard ones it would take to cut spending, raise revenues and balance budgets.

Ranting about the debt is easier than taming it. So the same political theatrics are played over and over again. The debt limit has been raised 78 times since 1960. The current hassle over No. 79 is more contentious and divisive than the previous rounds because of hardened lines in Congress, not only between Democrats and Republicans but within their rosters, especially on the GOP side where about 80 freshmen sent by tea party voters consider compromise a crime.

The hypocrisy of the whole process was summed up by an expert witness, Barack Obama, now the president championing a debt limit increase, when he tried to explain his own vote as junior senator from Illinois to oppose the raise then-President George W. Bush sought.

He'd said in the Senate in 2006 that raising the debt limit was "a sign of leadership failure." That was in keeping with the congressional pattern: Blame it on the president. No matter that presidents don't appropriate the spending that creates deficits. Congresses do. But it is the presidents who must seek the increased ceilings necessary to avoid defaulting on the debt.

Now that's Obama's job.

"When you're a senator ... this is always a lousy vote," he said in an Associated Press interview April 15. "Nobody likes to be tagged as having increased the debt limit. ... As president, you start realizing ... we can't play around with this stuff."

As for his 2006 vote, which he now calls a mistake:

"That was just an example of a new senator making what is a political vote as opposed to doing what was important for the country."

The sorry fact is that they have become different things.

As Obama said, nobody in Congress likes voting for raising the debt ceiling. That is in part because the act is so widely misunderstood as a vote to increase the debt. It is not. The need for increased ceilings to accommodate past borrowing is not the cause of deficits, it is the effect of deficit spending, voted by Congress and signed by presidents.

Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican leader, put the political distaste of debt limit votes more bluntly. "The debt limit vote sucks," he was said to have told a House GOP conference, while urging approval of a six-month increase tied to spending cuts.

Cantor, House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader, all voted for repeated debt limit increases when Bush was president. The ceiling was raised seven times during the Bush years, twice through parliamentary ploys that got it done without direct votes.

The current dispute is over what would be the fourth increase since Obama became president. On Sunday he announced at the White House that the leadership of both parties in both houses of Congress have agreed on a deal to avoid default.

Historically, the pattern on increases that both sides know are vital has been to make the majority party push the increase and take the political blame. That works when one party can deliver the votes to do it or get enough votes from the other side to pass the increase.

It doesn't work when one party or both balks at the task.

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