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Debt ceiling: What voting to raise the debt limit really means

January 17, 2012 | 11:29 am

House Speaker John Boehner on the debt ceiling
Warming up for a vote Wednesday on whether to raise the debt ceiling, Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) declared that he would vote no in order to "send a clear message that we do not condone the president's wasteful fiscal policies of so-called stimulus, bailouts and ever-larger government."

That's a fine sentiment, but it also illustrates how badly lawmakers mischaracterize what this debate is all about. The justification that Hultgren offered for voting against the debt-ceiling increase is typical,  not just of Republicans nowadays but of Democrats who cast symbolic votes against increasing the debt ceiling during the George W. Bush administration.

Simply put, the federal government has to borrow more money because of what Congress has done lately. A wide majority of Republicans and Democrats in the House voted in November and December for spending bills that relied on a significant amount of borrowed money. That borrowing isn't affected by President Obama's 2009 stimulus bill or by "bailouts"; those dollars have already been spent. In other words, they're part of the accumulated debt, not new debt. And a congressman blaming Obama for ever-larger government is like a father blaming his son for having too large an allowance. Obama may be all for big government, but Congress has ultimate control over the federal purse strings.

To his credit, Hultgren voted against the omnibus spending bills in November and December that are helping to push the federal government past its credit limit. But he also voted in favor of the House GOP budget last year that called for increasing the debt ceiling by almost $9 trillion over the coming decade.

Discretionary spending is just part of the problem, of course. Entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security make up a larger part of the federal budget, and increasing healthcare costs are the single biggest factor in Washington's long-term fiscal problems. But neither Republicans nor Democrats have tried to move bills that would slow that growth. The House budget resolution included a far-reaching proposal to phase out Medicare in favor of subsidies for private insurance, but the political backlash persuaded the GOP-controlled House Ways and Means Committee not to translate that proposal into an actual bill.

Obama and congressional Democrats can certainly be blamed for being willing (even eager) to spill more red ink than their GOP colleagues. And Obama's stance has given House Republicans a Hobson's choice: They can agree to spend more than they want to, or they can shut down government until the Democrats agree to more cuts. Not only would the latter be ruinous politically, it would irresponsibly cut off vital services for their constituents.

Nevertheless, the best proposal House Republicans could come up with to rein in federal spending -- their fiscal 2012 budget proposal, which they could and did push through the House without Democratic votes -- still failed to halt the borrowing, and did so in a very big way. Without an actual plan to stop the borrowing, the stance of debt-ceiling deniers like Hultgren just seems like false piety.

(That's not to say there are no worthy plans for closing the budget gap -- see, for example, the work done by the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Bowles-Simpson commission, the "Gang of Six" and Bill Galston and Maya MacGuineas. All of these proposals are more sound than anything the White House or the House GOP has put forward.)

Here's another way to look at the issue. Imagine you told your spouse not to, but he or she went ahead and hired contractors to remodel your kitchen. You now face a choice: Do you borrow the money needed to pay for the work being done, or do you stiff the contractors? That's the position Congress finds itself in on the debt ceiling. Having committed the country to more borrowing, some lawmakers want to stiff the contractors.


Queueing up another (purely symbolic) vote

Debt ceiling: What's the excuse for voting "no"?

Government: Obama throws the GOP a debt-ceilng rope

Do House Republicans realize they just endorsed a higher debt limit?

-- Jon Healey

Photo: House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and other House Republicans speak to reporters during the first big fight over the debt ceiling last year. Credit: Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

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