Debt ceiling: Queuing up another (purely symbolic) vote
Fittingly enough, one of the Obama administration's last official acts of 2011 was to make sure lawmakers had another chance to show the financial markets that they're willing to default on newly minted obligations.
The deal struck last August to raise the debt ceiling did so in two increments: a $900-billion hike right away, and an additional $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion after the first allotment is largely exhausted. It also gives lawmakers the opportunity to vote against each of those increases. But Congress must cast its vote within 15 days after the president asks for the additional borrowing authority.
The federal government has, in fact, burned through much of the first $900 billion, and President Obama was poised to ask for the second debt-ceiling increase late in December. But doing so would have presented a dilemma for lawmakers: If they wanted to vote against the increase, they'd have to cut short their vacations district work periods and start the 2012 session ahead of schedule. So, to accommodate their desire not to return to the capital until late January, Obama has postponed asking for more borrowing authority until it's more convenient for Congress.
As I've argued several times in the past, the debt ceiling isn't a tool to enforce spending discipline. Voting against an increase in the debt ceiling is the same as voting to give the Treasury Department the authority to decide which creditors to stiff and, eventually, which bonds to default on.
The right tools to enforce budget discipline are the annual appropriations bills, along with the various measures setting tax rates and extending entitlement programs. Congress controls the purse strings, and if it really wants to stop the red ink, it can do so. Closing the budget gap doesn't require a constitutional amendment; it takes the will to say "no" to a bunch of constituencies that rely on the spendthrift status quo.
Congress obviously has not done so. In fact, it just passed omnibus spending bills for the rest of the fiscal year (which ends in September) that will push the country hundreds of billions of dollars deeper into the red.
Those bills complied with the August debt-ceiling law, which set spending limits for the next 10 years that will shave more than $900 billion from projected deficits over the coming decade. That measure also called for an additional $1.2 trillion to be cut over the next 10 years through a second set of spending cuts, which will start going into effect in 2013 because a congressional "super committee" failed to come up with an alternative way to save those dollars.
Anyway, it would be hypocritical for lawmakers who just voted for the deficit spending mandated by the omnibus spending bills to turn around and vote to bar an increase in the debt ceiling. But that won't stop many of them from doing so, comfortable in the knowledge that even if a majority of their colleagues joined them, Obama would veto the resolution of disapproval.
In other words, it's a purely symbolic vote that lawmakers don't need to cast. Yet, at the insistence of House and Senate leaders, they will get the chance to cast it. Will they stand up for honoring the commitments Congress just made, or will they vote to let the Treasury Department pick winners and losers among federal employees, contractors, beneficiaries and, eventually, bondholders?
More than 230 House members and 45 senators picked the latter option the first go-around, in September, but that was before they'd voted for the 2012 spending bills. Will more members recognize the connection this time between voting for deficit spending and creating an obligation to borrow? The safe bet is no.
-- Jon Healey
Photo: House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and President Obama meet to discuss the debt ceiling in July. Credit: Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press