J. Scott Applewhite, AP
The Capitol is seen in Washington, Monday, July 31, 2017. Most Senate Democrats and independents said Aug. 1, that upcoming legislation to rewrite the tax code should make sure the middle class doesn’t pay more. They won’t support any upcoming GOP effort to overhaul the U.S. tax code that delivers tax cuts to “the top 1 percent” or adds to the government’s $20 trillion debt.

With both houses of Congress and the president out of Washington for a few weeks, perhaps we can have a crucial conversation about some of the greatest long-term threats our country faces — our national debt, deficit spending and the perpetual raising of the debt ceiling.

When Congress returns, one of the first items of business will be the need to raise the debt ceiling. Even as we approach $20 trillion in debt, most of the conversation in September will be focused on politics, not finances. Simply raising the debt ceiling without a national debate on our financial situation is reckless and irresponsible.

Way back in 2010, Adm. Michael Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared, “The most significant threat to our national security is our debt.” Since that time, members of both political parties have ignored his warning and added trillions of dollars to our national debt. Both parties have spent money we do not have, on things we cannot afford, necessitating the continued increase of the debt limit. While we rightly complain about conflict in Congress, it is important to remember that you cannot get $20 trillion in debt through conflict. You can only get that deep in debt through collusion.

America has always paid its bills and always will. Raising, or not raising, the debt limit doesn’t change what we owe — just as reducing the spending limit on your credit card doesn’t change the fact that you must pay back what you spent, plus interest. If we are going to be serious about this serious threat to our national security — like a family buried in credit card debt — we should start by cutting up the credit cards, then have a conversation about prioritizing spending and payments.

We can no longer afford to let politicians use debt, deficit spending and the debt ceiling for their own political purposes.

For instance, Utah’s senior senator, Orrin Hatch, during the run-up to his last election, declared what it would take to get him to vote to raise the debt ceiling: the so-called Cut, Cap, and Balance Plan advanced by conservatives like Sen. Mike Lee. Hatch said in a press release endorsing the plan, "The Cut, Cap, Balance Act would slash spending, impose strict spending caps, and require passage of a balanced budget amendment before Congress can raise the debt ceiling.” Simple and straightforward, responsible and reasonable.

However, on Thursday of last week, Hatch changed his mind, saying, “Some conservatives think they can get some programs cut. Well, that’s not gonna happen. … We have to pay our bills and anybody who doesn’t want to do that doesn’t deserve to be here.” Of course the country will pay its debts. But if we don’t use this moment to have the conversation about spending and debt — as Hatch himself insisted on six years ago — the increase to the current debt ceiling will simply become the new floor of America’s financial failure.

And remember, this spending conversation should not be about merely cutting big government, but also about fixing broken government. We should ask Republicans and Democrats difficult questions during our crucial financial conversation.

To Republicans, the first question Americans should ask is this: If you really want to reduce welfare spending, shouldn’t we begin with corporate welfare reform? Cronyism is the way of the swamp, and too many corporations profit while hardworking Americans pay the price, simply because big businesses can afford an army of lawyers and lobbyists to do their bidding and buy votes in Congress.

In the same way, if Democrats are really committed to caring for the poor, shouldn’t they be the ones calling for an audit and evaluation of every single poverty program to ensure that each program truly empowers rather than entraps the poor? Ending waste, fraud and abuse in the system, while providing a path of upward mobility based on responsibility, is vital, moral and prudent.

If Republicans believe in the importance of American might through military strength, they should demand a full assessment of the military-industrial complex to root out inefficiencies, end ridiculous cost overruns and eliminate outdated operational organizations.

There are countless other examples where both sides of the aisle could change the country’s financial conversation and actually live up to the principles they profess to believe. What we do with our dollars and cents — especially with money we don’t actually have — declares quite loudly what we value, where our priorities are and how much sense we truly possess.

We need to have an uncomfortable conversation as a nation about money, our security and the country we will leave to our posterity. America’s debt, deficit spending and the debt ceiling shouldn’t be the next convenient political tool for fundraising. Since Congress seems unable, or unwilling, to have such a conversation about our financial affairs, we the people should start the dialogue without them.

Send your thoughts and questions to boydmatheson@sifreedom.org.

Boyd C. Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.