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The House votes down a debt-ceiling increase

May 31, 2011 |  5:05 pm

The House Republican leadership brought up a bill Tuesday afternoon to raise the federal debt limit to $16.7 trillion, as per President Obama's fiscal 2012 budget request, but not for the sake of approving it. Instead, they wanted to show the White House what it already knows: that a "clean" increase in the debt ceiling was a political non-starter. Sure enough, the bill was easily defeated, 318 to 97.

The Democratic leadership, smelling a rat, had urged its membership to vote against the proposal too. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the second-ranking Democrat in the House, told reporters Tuesday that he'd advised his caucus "not to play this political charade" and risk providing fodder for a "30-second ad attack," according to The Hill. Eighty-two Democrats took his advice, while seven others voted "present." Ninety-seven supported the increase.

Too bad Democrats didn't offer a bill simply to increase the debt ceiling to $16.2 trillion. That's the amount called for by the budget resolution that House Republicans approved for the fiscal 2012. Or $17.2 trillion, the amount that same resolution projected for fiscal 2013. What rationale would the GOP have offered for voting against either of those?

The House GOP leaders have acknowledged that the limit must be raised, taking pains to reassure Wall Street that they won't drag out this fight long enough to force a default. The only question is how much discretion lawmakers will agree to take away from future Congresses.

Critics of the debt-ceiling legislation are focusing on the wrong problem here. Raising the debt limit is like affixing postage on the package you've already pledged to deliver. If Congress doesn't raise the limit, it won't be able to honor the commitments lawmakers already made. The problem is in the commitments, not the limit. 

The budget resolution is one such commitment. It's also a fine framework for reducing deficits, given that it can set in motion reconciliation bills that force changes to mandatory spending programs and tax rates. The problem is that it's not a must-pass piece of legislation. Although the Constitution calls on Congress to pass one every year, if lawmakers can't agree on one in any given year, they proceed without it. That's what happened last year, and it's likely to happen again in 2011.

The annual appropriations bills are must-pass measures. Government shuts down without them. The appropriations process, however, doesn't control mandatory spending programs such as Medicare and farm subsidies. Those programs typically run on autopilot, and it takes an enormous amount of political muscle to change them.

The same is true for taxes, with one enormous exception: the Bush-era tax cuts, which are due to expire next year. That looming expiration will force Congress to decide whether to let rates rise back to the level in 2001, which would force most Americans to pay more in taxes. One of the reasons the debt ceiling has to be raised now is the deal Congress struck with Obama late last year, which renewed the Bush tax cuts and piled on additional temporary cuts in payroll and business taxes. And one of the reasons the House GOP's budget resolution contemplates several trillion dollars in additional debt is that it assumes all the Bush tax cuts will be renewed in 2012.

Anyway, the fact that the federal government has hit its $14.3-trillion debt limit is just a manifestation of decisions Congress and the White House made about taxes, entitlements and appropriations. Members on both sides of the political fence have declared their unwillingness to vote for an increase in the debt limit unless the measure also restricts future spending and deficits in some meaningful way. I get that, and I share the concern about the mounting debt. But the real measure of lawmakers' intentions regarding the deficit is how they vote on tax, spending and entitlement bills, not whether they agree to honor the commitments Congress has already made.

-- Jon Healey

 

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