The House of Representatives recently voted to raise the debt ceiling without any conditions, thereby avoiding a second government shutdown and sidestepping yet another episode of partisan brinksmanship. In recent years, these breakdowns have become an unfortunately commonplace occurrence on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Such confrontations tend to produce much in the way of passionate rhetoric — and little in the way of useful solutions. Congress is to be applauded for not subjecting the nation to a replay of this tiresome ordeal.
Many, however, are criticizing the Republicans in Congress. Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves after the deal was struck and lamented that the GOP had “caved.” His sentiments have echoed across others in the conservative media world. Some fiscal conservatives called the latest developments a missed opportunity to force President Obama to adopt new austerity measures. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, told USA Today that "permanent structural spending reform" ought to be attached to any deal to raise the debt ceiling. The lack of such conditions is, in his view, unfortunate.
We agree with those who, like Sen. Lee, believe that permanent structural spending reform is something America desperately needs. We’d just like to see this accomplished through legislative vehicles other than a vote to raise the debt ceiling.
Why not use the debt ceiling as leverage? By the time Congress has to decide whether or not to raise the debt ceiling, the money in question has already been spent. The consequence of not raising the debt ceiling is merely that the United States will choose not to honor obligations that it has already made. That, in our view, is an unacceptable outcome. Using the debt ceiling as a political football is telling the American people that this country’s full faith and credit can be sacrificed, and that’s not responsible.
Yet spending reform is dearly needed. The scattershot reforms of the past have done next to nothing to address the fundamental spending problem. That problem is the exponential growth of the nation’s entitlement programs. They are on an unsustainable trajectory.
To date, spending reforms have focused almost exclusively on discretionary spending, which now represents less than a third of all federal outlays. Mathematically, it is impossible to get our fiscal house in order without tackling the problem of entitlements. Both Democrats and Republicans have been reluctant to deal with this issue.
The debt ceiling is symptomatic of the problem, not the problem itself. Now that another partisan showdown has been avoided, it’s time to get to work with solutions that will put both discretionary and mandatory spending under control.