Editorial: If Kevin McCarthy is serious about protecting the economy, he’d raise the debt ceiling
After he was elected speaker on the 15th ballot, Kevin McCarthy promised that the U.S. House under Republican leadership would protect the national economy, saying that the party was committed to “stop wasteful Washington spending, to lower the price of groceries, gas, cars, housing, and stop the rising national debt.”
But there is more to sound economic stewardship than controlling future spending. The government must also pay the bills Congress has run up in the past, even if that means further borrowing. McCarthy and his fellow Republicans need to recognize that reality and stop politicizing the issue.
Last week the Treasury Department announced that the U.S. had hit a congressionally mandated limit on how much the federal government could borrow to satisfy its financial obligations — the so-called debt ceiling. Secretary of the Treasury Janet L. Yellen is taking “extraordinary measures” that are likely to forestall a crisis until June. But Congress needs quickly to raise the debt ceiling to make it clear that payments — including to Social Security recipients — will be made.
The semi-regular debt limit fight is politics at its worst.
Unfortunately, House Republicans are essentially threatening to hold an increase in the debt limit hostage to concessions on future spending from the Biden administration and congressional Democrats. Never mind that Republicans don’t seem to agree on what sort of cuts they want to make, with some eyeing potentially politically perilous changes in Social Security and Medicare.
President Biden has insisted on a “clean” increase in the debt ceiling from the current $31.381 trillion, but he muddied his message by agreeing to meet McCarthy to discuss the debt ceiling among other subjects. McCarthy pointedly told Biden: “I accept your invitation to sit down and discuss a responsible debt ceiling increase to address irresponsible government spending” — seeming to assume that the two issues would be linked. (White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre issued a statement saying that Biden continues to believe that “raising the debt ceiling is not a negotiation; it is an obligation of this country and its leaders to avoid economic chaos.”)
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, sometimes the Republican adult in the room, seems reluctant to play an active role in resolving the impasse. This week McConnell unhelpfully said that any solution to the debt ceiling crisis “will have to come out of the House” and that it was “entirely reasonable for the new speaker and his team to put spending reduction on the table.”
House Republicans talk tough on the deficit, but their new rules allow for the same old GOP fiscal fakery and a flood of red ink.
As a matter of raw politics, Republicans may think that they can use action on the debt ceiling to force the administration into a corner. There is some precedent for such a strategy. In 2011, the Obama administration agreed to a deal in which the ceiling was raised in connection with the adoption of legislation that placed some limits on spending.
But that doesn’t justify brinkmanship in 2023, when policymakers are striving to head off a recession. Nor is it clear that McCarthy, whose speakership depends on the support of extremists in his conference, is in a position to credibly negotiate with the administration on any arrangement that would link an increase in the debt ceiling to future spending cuts.
Republicans in the House are free to advocate policies designed to address what they consider wasteful spending. But politicizing the raising of the debt ceiling is dangerous. Ideally, the ceiling would be abolished. As we have said before, raising the federal debt limit should be a routine, obligatory act by Congress to discharge the government’s basic duty to pay its bills. But at a minimum Congress must raise the limit periodically to ensure that the government can borrow what it needs to meet its obligations.
If McCarthy and other House leaders aren’t willing to endorse an increase, Biden must appeal to responsible Republicans in the House — and there are some — to put nation above party.
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