Embarrassed at their failure to use the fiscal cliff as a tool to cut federal spending, some members of the U.S. House already are promising a showdown over the debt ceiling.
They will get their chance in about two months, when the once-routine task of authorizing payment on obligations backed by the full faith and credit of the United States again falls to Congress.
The Government Accountability Office explains the significance of the debt ceiling: “The debt limit does not control or limit the ability of the federal government to run deficits or incur obligations. Rather, it is a limit on the ability to pay obligations already incurred.”
Debt-ceiling votes have taken place since 1917. Since John F. Kennedy was president, Congress had authorized debt-ceiling increases 80 times, including 18 times under former President Ronald Reagan — who doubled the debt ceiling — and seven times under former President George W. Bush.
It was not until 2011 that America had a House of Representatives with the hubris to threaten U.S. creditors with nonpayment as a means of forcing the Senate to do its bidding.
The eager GOP majority in the House has every right to cut federal expenses. In the short term, it can do so by passing legislation acceptable to the Democrat-controlled Senate or blocking budget resolutions. In the longer term, it can do so by convincing the public to elect senators who share its program-cutting zeal.
The effort at public persuasion fell flat in the 2012 elections, when the GOP lost seats in both houses of Congress and lost the presidency.
The House subverts the constitutional process by using the debt ceiling to badger the Senate into submission. The mere threat of refusing to raise the debt ceiling to pay for existing obligations harmed the nation in 2011, triggering a downgrade in U.S. debt. Acting on the threat would be devastating.
Wielding the debt ceiling as a weapon should not be confused with typical negotiations. It is more akin to negotiations with a hijacker.
The House is threatening to blow up the ship of state unless the Senate allows it to take control of the cockpit. The moral dilemma for the Senate is whether to refuse negotiations with hijackers — risking a calamity that benefits neither the House nor the Senate — or to concede, thereby protecting the ship and its occupants until the House is done with them.
To wield the debt ceiling as a weapon, House members must demonstrate they care less about U.S. solvency than do their political opponents. That demonstration should end their careers.
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