Put a lid on debt ceiling debate

Last year’s tussle over increasing the federal debt limit showed Congress at its worst, paralyzed by dueling ideologies and incapable of striking a grand bargain. The eventual compromise by lawmakers and the White House raised the debt ceiling enough to last until the end of 2012 or early 2013, giving voters a chance to shuffle the deck in Washington before the next round of negotiations. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), however, has been calling on Congress to take up the issue before the election, saying Congress shouldn’t wait He’s got a point, but the debt ceiling bill is the wrong place for that debate.

As much as House Republicans complain about Washington’s fiscal mess, they haven’t tried to translate the most important (and controversial) elements of their deficit-cutting plans into legislation even in their own chamber. Those include the proposals by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to rein in spending on Medicare and Medicaid and eliminate at least some of the exemptions, deductions and credits in the tax code.

Not that Senate Democrats or President Obama are likely to support them. Democrats have insisted that tax increases be part of any plan to bring the debt under control, and Republicans have rejected any major hike in revenue. But that’s a fight worth having. Substantive, thorny issues such as entitlements and taxes lie at the heart of the long-term debt problem, and lawmakers absolutely should be debating them — even if it’s just to score political points and hope voters will respond in November.

By contrast, the recurring need to raise the debt limit is an effect, not a cause, of the federal budget problems. House Republicans are already on record in favor of trillions of dollars in additional borrowing — that’s what their budget resolutions for fiscal 2012 and 2013 have called for. Nevertheless, Boehner wants to make the debt ceiling debate a substitute for debating Medicare, Medicaid or taxes by tying future increases in the limit to spending cuts, knowing Democrats will hold out instead for a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes.

The impasse that would ensue would only remind financial markets of the last year’s brinkmanship and dysfunction, when Congress’ inability to reach a meaningful compromise persuaded one rating agency to downgrade Treasury securities for the first time in history. If it wants to engage in political theater, the House GOP would do better to pass bills rewriting the entitlement programs that are behind Washington’s long-term fiscal problems than to threaten not to raise the debt limit. The former tells voters exactly where the party stands; the latter tells the public not to count on the federal government to honor its debts.