On Wednesday the GOP-led House voted 285-144, with all but 33 Republicans on board, to extend the debt ceiling another three months without spending concessions, postponing their confrontation with a president itching for a fight to May. They’ve wised up.
It buys time for House Republicans to try to reclaim the momentum lost from President Barack Obama’s re-election and inauguration and come up with a more winning strategy to coax some desperately needed spending discipline out of Democrats. You had to figure that the rational Republicans would prevail, though they will forgive those Americans who wondered if they were a suicidal lot, willing to toss in the towel on the 2014 midterm elections right now.
Indeed, risking default and the full faith and credit of the United States, another recession and the ire of unpaid Social Security recipients and soldiers, to give themselves political leverage in a budget battle was the very definition of a self-defeating situation, for which Republicans would have taken the brunt of the blame. They pushed the envelope on that last summer, earning Uncle Sam a credit rating downgrade from Standard & Poor’s and nearly a 6 percent drop in the Dow Jones in a single day.
Business leaders and the Wall Street Journal editorial page alike recognized the folly of repeating that mistake, urging the GOP to come to its senses, in some cases even encouraging Congress to get rid of its uncommon debt ceiling provision altogether. It only provided the ammunition for Obama to go on the offensive and paint the party as a bunch of blackmailing extremists, as he did earlier this month in saying “they will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy.”
In short, the nation has an obligation to pay its bills. It is neither fiscally responsible nor fiscally conservative to suggest otherwise. The American people recognized that, and finally, so did Capitol Hill Republicans.
Oh, Republicans are not wrong to be alarmed by a $16.4 trillion debt, particulary its growth as a percentage of GDP. Nor are they wrong to call out Senate Democrats for not passing a formal budget for three consecutive years, which is both unprecedented and practically scandalous in its dereliction of duty. Indeed, one part of this debt ceiling extension bill would withhold lawmaker paychecks if there’s no budget adopted by April 15, which may not be constitutional but is bound to be popular.
Ultimately there are just better ways, better tools, for the GOP to get its message across than messing with the debt ceiling, which has been raised more than 90 times since 1940 - 18 times under Ronald Reagan, seven times under George W. Bush, with only President Harry Truman not going along - with nary a peep of protest from them. Until recently it had never been tied, like a millstone, to budget deliberations. That said, Republicans are not the only hypocrites here. In fact Obama, as a U.S. senator in 2006, joined every other Democrat in that chamber in voting no on what he now proposes, saying at the time that “the fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure.” What’s he see when he looks in the mirror now?
Page 2 of 2 - Ultimately, the Democrats’ advocacy for unchecked spending is not fiscally responsible, either. Obama is being contradictory and disingenuous when he says, as he did in his inaugural address, that “we must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”
In fact governing is all about choosing. The president also sets up a false dichotomy in arguing that the only way to address the deficits is to effectively kill the likes of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. To the contrary, reining in the excessive red ink, even if it means tightening some belts in the present, is the best way to ensure those programs will still be around for the long term. From this vantage the White House would be far savvier to take this weapon out of the Republican arsenal by proposing spending cuts of its own. To leave that duty to some other president and administration down the road, which is what Obama seems to be proposing ... well, that’s not leadership.
By the same token, House Republicans serious about sparing future generations should remove the words “debt ceiling” from their vocabularies once and for all and act quickly instead to pass bills that attempt to do what they talk about - reduce spending, going not just after the Democrats’ pet programs but their own, defense among them. That would put pressure on the Senate and ostensibly force its members, specifically in its Democratic majority, to defend their ongoing disregard for their own children and grandchildren.
Wednesday’s House vote doesn’t actually buy anyone three months, of course, with budget confrontations and deadlines in March over automatic cuts to defense and discretionary domestic programs and a halt to continued financing of government operations. Wouldn’t it be something if all involved came down with a sudden bout of maturity and fiscal sanity? Don’t hold your breath.
Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.