The Corner

On Congress and the Debt Ceiling

Those hoping that Congress will raise the debt ceiling without making any attendant changes to the nation’s interminable spending binge are fond of claiming that Republicans are “holding the economy hostage,” and of insinuating that the GOP’s using the threat of default as leverage is somehow morally reprehensible. This is dangerous — if calculated — nonsense, designed primarily to delegitimize what are legitimate bargaining chips and to make it appear as if the House of Representatives doing its job is unthinkable in a modern economy.

First off, there is no moral problem whatsoever with Republicans using the debt ceiling as leverage in a related fight — a fight that is ultimately about debt. If Republicans request spending cuts as the price of their acquiescence with a debt ceiling raise, they will simply be insisting upon changes to the underlying problem in exchange for granting a temporary remedy. This is reasonable. Sure, if the Republican party were using the debt ceiling as general leverage in order to pass any unrelated legislation that it wanted, that would be unacceptable, although not unprecedented. Promising to increase the debt ceiling only if the Senate and the White House signed onto, say, school choice, would be reprehensible. But that’s not what’s happening here. Instead, those being accused of “taking hostages” are arguing that raising the debt ceiling ad infinitum without any serious plan to stop borrowing — we’re at 16 trillion already, for goodness sake — is unreasonable. It is unreasonable, and that Republicans have thus far proven rather useless at doing any meaningful cutting does not mean that they are wrong in their diagnosis of the problem at hand.

It is Congress’s job to oversee economic policy, and the House’s in particular. Regardless of whether it is “good” policy or not, the House of Representatives is wholly within its rights to refuse to raise the debt ceiling if it so wishes. To submit that Congress has the right to raise the debt ceiling but that to refuse to do so would be “a step too far” is to grant that Congress does not actually enjoy power over the issue at all, but is instead just a bystander armed with a rubber stamp. If this were true, it would undermine the American constitutional order, which is of course exactly what those making asinine (the platinum coin) or downright illegal (fourteenth amendment) suggestions wish to do. Their view is that this issue is just too important to leave to our system of government, so the president — or anyone – must step in and “do the right thing.”

Quite evidently, the best outcome is that the debt ceiling is raised. Congress, however, is under no obligation to give carte blanche to those wedded to the status quo, nor bound to sign off on each and every debt ceiling increase without questioning why such increases never cease. It may be routine for the debt ceiling to be raised, but there comes a point at which all such things have to be questioned and to imply that such questioning is improper is to imply that there is no limiting principle here at all. Perhaps those who are so vexed at the possibility of Republicans calling “Halt” could give us a number at which such an instruction would be acceptable?

It is clear that those affronted by Republican skepticism toward a simple raising of the debt ceiling are either happy with the current level of spending and debt, or are of the view that austerity would be more economically destructive than would blithely continuing down the current path. These are legitimate positions, if, I think, wrongheaded. But their proponents should make the case that for Congress to insist upon early 2013 as the temporal line in the sand is folly, not attempt to render illegitimate that body’s right to do so.


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