Columns / Discourse / January 23, 2013

Voice of Reason: Congress on a hot fiscal roof

Winston Churchill is well-known for using oratory to denounce his opponents as cowards and fools. Less well-known is that he was also of fan of using the indexes of his books to do the same. In the first volume of his account of the Second World War, we can find this chestnut: “Baldwin, Stanley … confesses putting party before country, 169-70.”

How many of our own representatives will one day require such an entry.

Once again, we near the federal debt ceiling with little sign of compromise in sight. The last time the government hit its own self-imposed fiscal limit, in August 2011, Congress’ refusal to put the good of the country ahead of partisanship lost the United States its formerly untouchable credit rating, sent the stock markets into chaos and cost the country about $19 billion, according to Bipartisan Policy Center estimates. This was even with a solution thrown together at the last minute, if we’re counting kicking the can down the road as a solution.

Now Congress is preparing to do it all over again. If Chinese intelligence services were wreaking this kind of havoc upon our economy, we might very well consider it an act of war. As it is, it is just another day in Washington.

Public Policy Polling recently found that a list of the things that are more popular than Congress right now include cockroaches, colonoscopies and Nickelback. (Those on the Hill can take heart; they are still beating the Kardashians and gonorrhea, though one can’t help but wonder for how much longer.)

It’s not difficult to see why. Raising the debt limit is not an issue of keeping spending under control. The spending has already occurred. Raising the debt limit is a question of whether Congress will allow itself to fund the programs that it has already legally obligated itself to fund or if it will destroy the economy. That this is even being argued about is simply breathtaking.

Though the Republicans are at the moment the guilty ones, neither party has a shred of credibility on this issue. The Wall Street Journal gleefully ran an excerpt last week from a 2006 speech of then-Senator Obama where he denounced the Bush administration’s request to raise the debt limit, warning of crushing levels of interest payments and unsustainable burdens on future generations. The WSJ piece reminds us that the only reason the Democrats are now such big fans of raising the ceiling is because they happen to be in power at the moment. Don’t mistake their newfound enthusiasm for conviction.

There is no good reason for the debt ceiling to exist. In the industrialized world, only Denmark has deemed it a good idea to heighten its own risk of default for no easily graspable purpose, and the Danes at least lack our love of inflicting recessions on ourselves to score political points. If spending is going to be seriously brought under control, that will happen debt ceiling or not, while if spending is to be left to grow unchecked, the consequences will be bad enough without us adding to them.

Both parties should join together and simply abolish the ceiling. This is hardly a radical position. Ben Bernanke has recently come out in support of doing just that, likening Congress to a family in debt that simply decides one day to stop paying its bills.

Long-term spending absolutely needs to be brought under control, but it should be clear to everyone that the debt ceiling is a terrible way to go about doing that. Cutting spending should happen because this country needs to put its long-term finances in order, not because we willingly placed our head under a fiscal guillotine.

“Something has gone terribly wrong when the biggest threat to our American economy is the American Congress,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). Indeed, something has. We have enough economic problems as it is. Congress should have the decency to stop making itself another one.

Tags:  Ben Bernanke congress Debt debt ceiling economy finances fiscal cliff Joe Manchin

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Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

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