Passing the fiscal buck — again
How America should respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons dominated the political debate for weeks. But the Beltway spotlight has now shifted from that foreign-policy crisis to a pair of related fiscal-policy dilemmas.
Unless Congress passes a budget resolution that President Barack Obama will sign before the fiscal year ends on Oct. 1, some agencies of our national government will start shutting down. And unless Congress raises the debt ceiling by a few weeks later, the federal government will start defaulting on its financial obligations.
Unlike the Syrian issue, where widespread bipartisan opposition emerged to President Obama’s idea of using U.S. military force, the fiscal debate is divided more clearly along party lines. In general, Republican lawmakers are still calling for more spending restraint while Democratic lawmakers and the president are resisting it.
Still, Congress will almost certainly pass another continuing budget resolution before Oct. 1. It also will almost certainly raise the debt ceiling. In both cases, the drama, and acrimony, will probably intensify before those legislative moves are made in the nick of time.
And though the initial budget deal the Republican House is expected to pass today provides no money for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it’s highly unlikely that GOP lawmakers can make that “de-funding” element stick.
Thus, Washington’s reckless pattern of ducking hard spending — and taxing — choices will persist.
Continuing budget resolutions merely move spending forward at or near current levels. Debt-ceiling hikes keep elevating the flood of red ink stemming from our familiar failure to make federal ends meet. Both maneuvers have been aptly pegged as “kicking the can down the road.”
Yes, there has been some modest spending restraint on Capitol Hill this year. That’s mainly thanks to the sequester, which uses an across-the-board axe to control federal spending due to lawmakers’ refusal to make more responsible case-by-case cuts.
Still, along with the weak economic recovery, the sequester has helped lower the projected 2013 budget deficit to a scant $642 billion — the first total under $1 trillion in the last five years.
Just don’t be fooled by that decline.
We will never correct our misguided course toward financial oblivion without fundamental reform of Medicare and Social Security. Both entitlement programs are unsustainable in their current forms due to demographic realities imposed by the retirement of the massive Baby Boom generation.
Add the onrushing obligations of that so-called Affordable Care Act, with or without its flurry of executive-fiat waivers, and our nation’s long-term financial outlook remains grim.
Meanwhile, Congress keeps passing the buck by passing those continuing budget resolutions and raising that ever-ascending debt ceiling. The limit was last boosted as part of the August 2011 agreement to avoid the “fiscal cliff.” Congress agreed to achieve deficit-reduction goals or, failing that, to enact “sequestered” spending limits across the board on many federal programs.
The lawmakers predictably took the easier way out, and the sequester took effect in March of this year.
No, Republicans who control just one chamber of Congress shouldn’t try to trigger a government shutdown in their misguided bid to “de-fund” Obamacare.
If only the fix were that easy. It’s not.
And Washington’s fiscal mess is a long-term problem demanding a long-term solution — not short-term political grandstanding.
Unfortunately, President Obama again showed a lack of fiscal leadership Wednesday when he tried this weak spin in a speech at the Business Roundtable in Washington:
“Now, this debt ceiling — I just want to remind people in case you haven’t been keeping up — raising the debt ceiling, which has been done over a hundred times, does not increase our debt. It does not somehow promote profligacy. All it does is it says you got to pay the bills that you’ve already racked up, Congress.”
It’s true that raising the debt ceiling alone “does not raise our debt.” But it’s also true that raising the ceiling facilitates raising the debt — just as raising a credit card’s limit raises the risk of its holder going deeper into the red.
And it’s true that on Mr. Obama’s White House watch, our national debt has soared from $10.6 trillion to $16.7 trillion. Once that ceiling is lifted — again — the debt will keep climbing.
At some point, though, our elected officials — and we the people who vote them into office — must face hard truths and make difficult decisions.
Otherwise, we will keep kicking that can down the road to a bottom-line disaster.