A month from now, the federal government could be in default. According to the U.S. Department of Treasury, the U.S. government no longer will be able to meet its debt obligations unless the debt limit is increased. In other words, the government won’t be able to pay the bills it has incurred.
The debt limit is the maximum amount the federal government can carry in debt. Congress sets the limit, which is currently $16.7 trillion. No one disputes the federal government continues to borrow money at an alarming rate and national leaders need to find a solution to the ballooning national debt. Nevertheless, that doesn’t change the fact that the federal government must meet its legal obligations to provide entitlement benefits such as Social Security and Medicare, pay interest on previous borrowing, and run the operations of the government.
Unfortunately, the debt limit increase Congress must approve has become a political football. Many Congressional Republicans are threatening to deny approval of an increase in the federal debt limit if the White House does not agree to a one-year delay in Obamacare. Speaker of the House John Boehner won’t give his approval unless the Obama administration agrees to specific spending cuts.
This is a strategy popular with the Republican right wing, but it is bad policy for the nation. Paying the nation’s bills is not about politics. It sends the wrong signal to investors that U.S. political leaders are not serious about the consequences of default. The nation’s bond rating was lowered after the last near-default. That would happen again if the government defaulted. Even the possibility of default makes investors jittery and undermines our reputation as a nation that always lives up to its promise to pay its bills. A lower bond rating costs taxpayers more money because borrowing comes at a heavier price, just as a lower credit score for failure to pay bills hurts an individual.
Who is responsible for this problem? The fault for the large budget deficits chalked up each year must be shared by Congress itself. At one time, Congress voted for each of those appropriations that cost more than the revenue the government brings in. It approved the programs the government must legally maintain and for which it now runs an annual deficit.
For over 30 years, the budget Congress passes has been way out of whack. It was Congress who racked up the enormous bills the government now owes when it passed tax cuts that slashed revenue but not spending, funded two wars through increased military spending without raising taxes to pay for them, and passed economic stimulus packages to mitigate the effects of the recession on American families while failing to raise taxes on the affluent who suffered little during the recession. These were actions that both political parties participated in. Each had its favorite spending priorities that added to the national debt. Their wisdom can be debated, but their cost is real.
Now the debt must be paid, and Congress is the only one to pay it. Failure to pay is similar to making credit card purchases and then refusing to foot the bill when it comes in the mail. Negotiating with the credit card company on their political views (or any views) doesn’t do any good. They want to be paid.
The Obama administration is correct in refusing to play politics with the debt limit. The president is urging Congress to do the same. Members of Congress must stop the attempt at political bargaining and preserve the nation’s bond rating and its honor.
It is time for serious discussion about how to reduce our national debt. We are spending too much of our national resources on interest on debt. But the debt limit vote is not the time and place to do so. Rather, it is time to simply pay the bill. After that happens, President Obama and congressional leaders need to sit down and map out a long-term strategy that reduces the annual federal deficit and reins in the federal debt. The United States government cannot afford to do anything else.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.