It’s called the “debt ceiling,” aka the “debt limit.”
But in the 96 years since it was first enacted to help fund the U.S. role in what President Woodrow Wilson prematurely called “the war to end all wars” (World War I), the ceiling has imposed little or no practical limit on the growth of the national debt.
So when the Republican-controlled House voted to raise the debt ceiling again Wednesday, for the 76th time in the last half century, it was Washington business as usual. The Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to approve the bill soon.
And though the legislation requires the Senate to pass its first budget in nearly four years by April 15, it perpetuates the reckless congressional habit of postponing hard choices needed to reduce the deficit.
This latest delay of bottom-line reckoning, though, didn’t stop some Democrats from bemoaning the bill’s mere three-month extension until the next debt-ceiling deadline.
President Barack Obama also persists in blaming Republican House leaders for the first downgrade of the federal government’s credit rating in U.S. history. That happened during the debt ceiling fight in the summer of 2011, when the nation appeared to reach the brink of default before a compromise was achieved.
It’s true that the risk of immediate default undermines our credit rating in the short term.
But the relentless, steep climb of our record national debt ($16.44 trillion as of Thursday) weakens our fiscal credibility, too — and if it continues at this reckless pace, would destroy it over the long term.
Yes, Mr. Obama’s White House predecessors routinely received debt-ceiling boosts without argument from Congress.
However, as a senator from Illinois, Mr. Obama voted against a debt-ceiling-increase request from President George W. Bush in 2006, branding the need to raise it again as “failure of leadership.”
And while the $455 billion deficit in the final year of Mr. Bush’s presidency set what was then a record, the smallest on President Obama’s watch has been $1.1 trillion.
Considering that dire trend, reflexively elevating the debt ceiling without seriously considering ways to slow the red-ink flow does, indeed, represent a failure of leadership.
Most Americans are understandably tired of the crisis mentality that permeated the year-ending “fiscal cliff” showdown. In the wake of the president’s re-election, that political conflict predictably produced a deal heavy on tax hikes and light on spending cuts.
Yet as President Obama’s own debt commission warned when it issued recommendations in late 2010, we do face a fiscal crisis that demands tough calls.
So bring on the renewed budgetary debate as Republicans call for more spending cuts, including entitlement reform, and Democrats call for more tax hikes, especially on the wealthy.
And recognize that each debt-ceiling increase is additional, alarming evidence that we’re still spending beyond our national means.