Debt ceiling isn't the place for a spending fight
If House Republicans want to spend less, they should pass bills that spend less, not threaten a government default.
I believe that overspending and overborrowing by the federal government are serious problems that need to be addressed. However, the debt ceiling is a wrong, reckless, and irresponsible mechanism by which to attempt it.
Those who support a clean increase in the debt ceiling often make the argument that it simply allows bills that have already been incurred to be paid. That’s partially true but not the entire story.
It would be entirely true of an increase in the debt ceiling through the end of this fiscal year in September. The spending that will occur between now and then has already been authorized through the constitutional process by the members of Congress duly elected to make those decisions.
However, whatever increase in the debt ceiling is advanced will extend for some period of time past the end of this fiscal year, into years for which Congress has yet to enact a budget. So, it will be, in part, to facilitate spending not yet approved.
But an increase in the debt ceiling isn’t itself an authorization to spend. If congressional Republicans want to have a fight about spending, it should take place through bills that specifically authorize the spending.
The risks of making this part of the debt ceiling debate are too great, the potential consequences too severe.
If the debt ceiling is not raised by early June, it will prevent the federal government from borrowing the money necessary to pay for spending that has been duly authorized. The federal government will default on some of its obligations.
The most economically consequential would be failure to pay interest on previously issued debt instruments. The most politically consequential would be not sending out Social Security checks on time.
Some Republicans are arguing to prioritize interest payments and Social Security checks in the event the debt ceiling isn’t increased. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says that the federal government’s payment system can’t be reprogrammed to do that. (That’s something to keep in mind when congressional primadonnas keelhaul Southwest Airlines executives before televised hearings to lambast them for not having invested in a flexible and nimble enough scheduling program for personnel.)
Even if it could be done, defaulting on less economically or politically consequential obligations would still make the federal government a deadbeat. There would be serious knock-on consequences from that.
If House Republicans got intransigent over future spending bills, rather than the debt ceiling, it would threaten a partial government shutdown. I think government shutdowns are also irresponsible. But the consequences aren’t as severe or lasting as a default.
In a partial government shutdown, the federal government can continue to borrow. And it can continue to spend on things not subject to annual appropriation. Significantly, that means that interest on debt instruments and Social Security benefits can continue to be paid.
If House Republicans believe that the federal government should spend less, they should pass budget bills for the next fiscal year that spend less. If House Republicans believe that entitlement programs – such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid – should be reformed so they cost less than projected in the future, they should pass bills incorporating those reforms. None of this should be part of the debt ceiling discussion or debate.
It’s a lead-pipe certainty that House Republicans couldn’t muster a majority to enact major reforms to entitlement programs. It’s far from certain that they can even reach consensus on spending less on the discretionary programs that require annual appropriations.
In reality, House Republicans have no mandate to rein in federal spending and borrowing. Nor any credibility in making the case. To a large extent, it is a MAGA caucus. And Donald Trump was a profligate spender and borrower.
The slender House GOP majority isn’t sufficient political leverage to make significant changes in the fiscal direction of the country, with Democrats in charge of the Senate and the White House. Attempting to do so by threatening a government shutdown would be a substantive and political mistake and miscalculation. Attempting to do so by threatening a government default would be a national travesty.
It may be that the only way out of this is a discharge petition to bring a clean debt limit increase to the House floor despite opposition from House Republican leadership. That can’t be done quickly or at the last moment. If there are any responsible House Republicans left, now is the time to be putting this in motion.
Reach Robb at email@example.com.