Outside editorial: Debt before dishonor

Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2011

The following editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

The huge annual budget deficits Congress has been running are pushing Washington close to the debt limit again. With the debt near $14 trillion, the federal government is expected to hit the current limit of $14.3 trillion within the next few months. That leaves lawmakers no choice but to raise the statutory cap on borrowing; to do otherwise would eventually render the federal government unable to perform crucial functions, such as writing Social Security checks or paying off maturing bonds. The consequences would be devastating — just imagine how high an interest rate the United States would have to pay on its debts in the future, and how many tax dollars that would drain from useful programs and services.

Some members of Congress, however, consider the debt ceiling vote a chance to prove their bona fides as penny-pinchers. In 2006, then- Sen. Barack Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling and bemoaned the “leadership failure” that had left the U.S. “unable to pay its own bills.” Similarly, a growing number of Republicans now say they’ll oppose lifting the ceiling unless discretionary spending is cut sharply and Social Security’s fiscal problems are solved.

No matter who’s doing it, it’s dangerous and irresponsible to refuse to raise the debt limit. The time for lawmakers to exercise fiscal restraint is when they’re voting on budget resolutions, appropriations and tax bills, not when they’re deciding whether to honor America’s debts. How ironic it is to hear many of the same people who recently insisted on borrowing $4 trillion over the next decade to renew all of the Bush-era tax cuts, and who just voted to eliminate the pay-as-you-go rules for future tax breaks, saying that Congress has to get serious about the debt.

The worst grandstanders are those who are trying to hold Social Security hostage. A good example is Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who said on national television recently that “I will not vote for the debt ceiling increase until I see a plan in place that will deal with our long-term debt obligations, starting with Social Security.” This is disingenuous; although Social Security is expected to exhaust its sizable reserves within 30 years, it’s not contributing to the deficit or the debt. If it runs short of cash in 2037, as projected, benefits will automatically be cut — a serious situation, certainly, but an entirely separate problem from the federal deficit.

The sooner Congress addresses the eventual shortfall in Social Security, the better. But it should do so for the sake of future Social Security beneficiaries, not to help close today’s budget gap. It’s bad enough that Republicans seem poised to play a game of chicken with the administration over the ministerial function of raising the debt ceiling. There’s no need to make matters worse by conflating Social Security’s funding issues with the federal government’s ever-mounting debt.

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