Raising the Debt Ceiling, a False Controversy

In January 2013, our Congress voted to temporarily suspend the federal debt ceiling [HR 325].  This political grandstanding was designed to stick President Obama with the tar baby of our federal debt and distract Americans from that fact that Congress is irresponsible for our current public debt growth.

As this issue of the debt ceiling will be coming up again very soon, let’s look at it for the moment in the context of a statement by U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL).  Before I examine Brooks’ statement, let me praise him on two points: (1) he said that he would vote against the bill if certain conditions were not met and in the end he was consistent, and (2) instead of simply making a media statement, he actually has sponsored legislation to further the policy that he champions [see HR 371 and HR 443, Protecting America’s Solvency Act of 2013].

In his statement opposing Speaker Boenher’s debt ceiling scheme, Brooks made three points:

  1. Today’s debt is a national security risk;
  2. Continuing deficits at the present level are unsustainable; and
  3. He would vote against the debt ceiling increase unless: a) Congress passes a balanced budget amendment, or b) sizable spending cuts are made.

His first two points are correct; however, his third one is poorly reasoned.

First, Republican calls for a balance budget amendment are a distraction from the real issue, which is cutting spending by revising past legislative mandates.

U.S Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), a cardinal of the Appropriations Committee that controls spending, has previously advocated for the balanced budget amendment by saying that his legislative colleagues are so corrupt that they can not simply vote for real and significant spending reductions without the political cover of a constitutional mandate that they can blame; while I do not doubt the honesty of Wolf’s effective condemnation our elected representatives, we as selfish citizens should demand a higher standard from them.

It takes fewer votes to pass a balanced budget (including overcoming a Senate filibuster) than it takes for the Congress to initiate an amendment to our Constitution.   Our representatives should stop making excuses for not doing the easier thing because the harder and unnecessary thing has yet to be done.  Unfortunately, this evasion of responsibility does accurately represent the electorate and we, as citizens, need to choose to change that fact.

Second, the arguments and debating over the debt ceiling is political kabuki in which legislators responsible for runaway spending, deficits, and debt attempt to fool the electorate into believing that it is our President’s fault.  The President only spends money authorized by Congress.  When the congressional Janus says from one mouth that the executive must spend on specific expenses and with the other mouth that he can neither have the tax revenue nor the borrowing authority to actually pay those expenses, what is our President to do?  This kind of congressional contradiction left our patriots wintering at Valley Forge naked.

It would be better for Congress to abolish the faux debt ceiling and not appropriate for expenses for which they are unwilling to pay.  As an alternative, the Congress could revise the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 to restore broad presidential rescission authority to unilaterally order that spending be cut to maintain constraint on the growth of federal debt.

In summary, no one has been forced to serve in Congress.  Having sought and won the position, it is time for our representatives to do their job.  In part, that means stop blaming our President for overspending problems creating by Congress.  Continued evasion of this responsibility weakens not only the Congress within our separation of powers, but has become dangerous to our country and government.

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