Republicans in the House of Representatives are having so much difficulty agreeing on an irresponsible course of action that they might actually just throw up their hands and pursue a responsible one.
That’s our interpretation of reports about the GOP majority’s so-far futile attempts to unite on a response to the looming need for an increase in the federal government’s borrowing capacity. Notwithstanding the political price Republicans have paid for such behavior, many in the party resist authorizing borrowing to pay for already-agreed-to spending unless that authorization is linked to some other policy they favor. With the Treasury warning that it will hit the debt ceiling at the end of this month, GOP lawmakers have considered and rejected several demands: an end to the “risk corridor” funding mechanism for the new Obamacare health care exchanges, which they call a “bailout”; a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline; or repeal of the just-agreed-to trim to military pension cost-of-living adjustments.
While the first two of these are veto bait for President Barack Obama, the third is remarkable mainly for its cynicism. It’s the only GOP demand calculated to garner Democratic votes, because fear of the military retiree lobby is one of the few sentiments still widely shared among members of both parties. Who cares if it would require renegotiating the entire brand-new budget deal between Republicans and Democrats, the purpose of which was to prevent a repeat of last year’s government shutdown fiasco?
The GOP’s discord over these unworkable options has driven a number of key lawmakers to admit that they may as well raise the debt ceiling with no conditions and no crisis. “Look, we owe the money and we’ve got to do something,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., realistically told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa on Wednesday. “It’s time to end the drama and get it over with.” If only the GOP hadn’t put itself — and the country — in this bind to begin with, through such unrealistic gestures as Speaker John A. Boehner’s “rule” matching debt-limit increases to spending cuts, dollar for dollar.
The Republicans — and all of Congress — need to start thinking beyond this round of an increasingly pointless game. For better or worse, the United States government owes upward of $17 trillion, and the certainty with which it stands behind that debt is crucial to global financial stability. The rickety debt-ceiling law, which dates to World War I and hasn’t been fundamentally reformed since, should be updated to reflect that modern reality — as well as the fact that two-thirds of federal spending consists of entitlements and interest payments.
As long as Congress is going to leave that much spending on automatic pilot, it needs a correspondingly reliable framework for financing it. True, periodic debt ceiling debates have the virtue of focusing attention on national indebtedness. But Congress needs to find a way to keep having that necessary discussion without risking this country’s reputation and the world economy.