Maybe markets will force Congress' hands

Posted: Thursday, December 09, 2010

I've never wished this before, but I hope the markets tank for the next few weeks. That could finally shock Capitol Hill into facing up to our nearly $14 trillion debt.

Capitol Hill's lack of leadership was sadly captured in last week's vote by the president's debt commission. Pretty much every commissioner who was not a legislator voted for the panel's set of spending cuts and tax reforms, but only about half of those who were legislators backed them.

That says all you need to know about the problem in Congress. We have legislators who have developed fine doctrines but not many who have a theory about governing.

Don't get me wrong. Legislators need guiding philosophies. Otherwise, they are serving simply to see their names in lights. But we also elect legislators to govern, and if they can't find a way to blend their philosophies with an idea about how to solve problems, we are in a big, bad way.

That's where we are now since the bipartisan debt commission could not get enough members to sign onto the document to send it to Congress for a vote. True, legislators like Sens. Richard Durbin, Kent Conrad, Judd Gregg, Mike Crapo and Tom Coburn voted for the plan, despite misgivings. They deserve the praise that groups like the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget heaped on them, calling them "fiscal heroes."

But others, such as Reps. Dave Camp, Jeb Hensarling, Jan Schakowsky, Paul Ryan and Xavier Becerra and Sen. Max Baucus voted no. I don't doubt many of them had principled reservations. I know Hensarling did because I talked to the Dallas Republican last week and heard him outline his likes and dislikes, just as he did in an eloquent speech before the commission.

But there comes a point at which you must stake your dislikes against the national interest. And when you consider the economic calamities that could arise from not dealing with the debt, it's hard to see why some of those principled differences could not have been put aside. The dissenting legislators could have voted against the reforms in Congress, while giving their colleagues a chance to vote their consciences, too.

Sure, Congress still could take up the spending cuts and tax hikes outlined in this measure, but I don't see how that happens. Or, let me rephrase, I don't see how the next Congress actually takes this to a vote. Republicans control one chamber, Democrats the other. Within those caucuses, too many legislators are more interested in protecting their doctrines than in governing.

So as much as I hate to say this, investors need to intervene. They aren't dumb. They know what's ahead: a huge fiscal calamity if we don't take care of our debt.

Investors also can see what's happening in England and across Europe, where lawmakers are showing teeth and cutting budgets. It looks like the only way we will get that done here is if those who control huge sums of investment dollars signal their worries through the financial markets.

Pardon my pessimism, but you would think this would rattle enough people on Capitol Hill to figure out a way to pass a plan to reduce the debt. Congress lacked the courage to set up its own debt commission, but now lawmakers have plenty of recommendations to cut spending. They also have an opening to overhaul the tax code, thanks to the commission's proposals to reduce personal and corporate rates while raising revenue through such changes as putting a lid on how much we can deduct for our mortgages.

Every change will require us to sacrifice. It also will require purists in both parties to sacrifice some of their doctrines for the larger good. May the markets force their hands.

• William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him at the Dallas Morning News, Communications Center, Dallas, Texas 75265; e-mail:

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