Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned last week that the federal government could run short of money to pay all its bills “potentially as early as June 1.” To prevent that from happening, the House, the Senate, and President Biden must agree to lift the statutory debt ceiling, which is currently $34.1 trillion. One of those three — the Republican-controlled House — has passed legislation to do just that. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and the president have so far refused to do anything.
By a narrow margin on April 26, the House approved a $1.5 trillion increase in the borrowing limit, pairing it with some relatively modest restraints on future spending growth. The Republican package would keep discretionary outlays (which account for about one-quarter of the federal budget) from rising by more than 1 percent per year. It would also reverse the White House plan to unilaterally cancel up to $20,000 of borrowers’ college debt and claw back funds appropriated for COVID-19 relief but never spent.
According to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the GOP measures would reduce deficits over the next decade by $4.8 trillion. Total spending between now and 2033 is projected at $80 trillion, so the House legislation is scarcely draconian.
Yet the reaction to the House bill from (many) Democrats has been a show of outrage. Schumer condemns it as “reckless” and “dangerous.” Biden, who is insisting on a debt-limit increase with no strings attached, lambastes the GOP spending trims as “hostage-taking.” The president has invited congressional leaders to a meeting on Tuesday but insists he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling.
Brinkmanship is nothing new in Washington. But if Democrats don’t want to be blamed for driving the government over a default cliff, they’ll have to do more than just say no. The House has put a plan on the table. Schumer, like Biden, may prefer a so-called “clean” bill that raises the debt limit and leaves spending reform for another day. But without the votes in the Senate to pass such a bill, Democrats are duty-bound to negotiate a compromise with the House.
If Biden had a longstanding policy of supporting “clean” debt-limit increases, his unwillingness to do so now could perhaps be understood as simple consistency. But again and again during his Senate career, Biden voted against such increases. In 2006, for example, Biden blamed the looming crisis on overspending by President George W. Bush. “Because this massive accumulation of debt was predicted,” he said on the Senate floor, “because … it was the result of willful and reckless disregard for the warnings that were given and for the fundamentals of economic management, I am voting against the debt limit increase.”
Similarly, Biden’s obstinate refusal to link a hike in the borrowing ceiling with negotiations over tax and spending changes is at odds with his stand in the past. During the debt-limit battle in May 2011, then-vice president Biden not only endorsed negotiations, he presided over them.
“From the outset of the meeting,” Politico reported at the time, “Biden cited ‘two looming concerns’ — the debt limit, and the ‘much larger looming issue of the long-term debt.’ Biden said the two sides agree that they have to deal with both issues simultaneously.”
That was exactly the right attitude then. It remains the right one now. Washington is trapped in a manifestly unhealthy cycle — (1) deficit spending (2) drives the government ever-deeper into debt, (3) necessitating a higher borrowing ceiling, (4) which facilitates more deficit spending, (5) rinse and repeat. The only hope of escaping this vicious circle is to address spending and the debt limit at the same time.
The federal government is like a family that keeps using a credit card to pay for purchases it can’t really afford. When the card is maxed out, they may be able to get a credit-limit increase, which will temporarily give them breathing room to pay for their obligations. But a temporary reprieve is not a solution. Without fundamentally changing its spending habits, the family will constantly find itself facing financial crises until its credit is eventually cut off.
Washington is drowning in red ink. In the short term the debt ceiling must be raised so the government can pay its bills. But to do so without a plan to stop incurring so many bills would be irresponsible in the extreme. As long as the feds keep racking up debt at the rate of a trillion or more dollars a year, these crises will never end. The bill passed by the House is a good start. The Senate and the president need to drop their theatrics, sit down at the negotiating table, and make it even better.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit https://bit.ly/ArguableNewsletter.