Congress should raise debt ceiling

Posted: Friday, December 11, 2009

The following editorial first appeared in the Dallas Morning News:

The best line of late comes from Bob Bixby, the deficit-fighting Concord Coalition's chief. Asked when Congress will vote to increase how much debt the nation can absorb, he quipped: "Nobody really knows. My bet is that it will happen sometime on Dec. 24, when Santa goes down the chimney."

Some in both parties would just as soon voters not think about the debt, which has hit a whopping $12 trillion. But Congress faces another of its required votes to increase its limit. Democratic congressional leaders keep postponing the decision, most likely to avoid embarrassing headlines. Hence, Bixby's prediction: Lawmakers could increase the ceiling on Christmas Eve, when no one is looking.

We respect that the country can't stop issuing debt. We must pay our bills, so Congress should lift the cap.

But this debt is getting absurd. It's grown $3 trillion in two years. If we allow it to keep rising in the short term, Washington must simultaneously control it in the long term.

We're thrilled that Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn and California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein have a plan to do that by dealing with the growth in guaranteed programs like Social Security and Medicare. (Those two alone make up about half of the federal budget.) We're equally thrilled to see some moderate Democratic senators, led by the likes of Evan Bayh of Indiana, oppose raising the debt ceiling unless Congress votes to likewise control the debt's growth. Their support is critical given their party's control of Washington these days.

The Cornyn-Feinstein measure would:

• Create a permanent, bipartisan entitlement commission of 15 members with financial expertise.

• Put seven members on the commission from the majority party, seven on it from the minority party and one from an independent, non-affiliated party.

• Allow the commission to make recommendations to Congress when two-thirds of its members agree on an entitlement reform.

• Require Congress to vote on the commission's recommendations within 120 days of receiving its reports.

We've long supported an independent debt commission, so we hope President Barack Obama gets behind this idea. The president spoke yesterday about improving America's fiscal health.

Nothing more would do that than stabilizing the growth in programs that we, like many Americans, want to preserve for future generations.

There's another compelling reason to address the debt, which historian Niall Ferguson recently captured in Newsweek. "If the United States doesn't come up soon with a credible plan to restore the federal budget to balance over the next five to 10 years," the Harvard professor wrote, " the danger is very real that a debt crisis could lead to a major weakening of American power."

So, let's raise the ceiling, but let's also control the debt's growth. Our strength depends upon both steps.

The first fiscal year for the U.S. government started Jan. 1, 1789. Congress changed the beginning of the fiscal year from Jan. 1 to July 1 in 1842, and finally from July 1 to Oct. 1 in 1977, where it remains today.

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