In March, Congress will have to decide whether or not to increase the limit on how much debt the country can consume. Debt limit bills usually lack much controversy and generally pass with bipartisan support. However, the election of 2010 has turned this issue into the first real litmus test of the new Congress.
Members know it is a sticky issue because, unlike with repealing or reforming Obamacare, both chambers in Congress will have to register a vote. The Tea Party-backed candidates, several of whom are now in their first terms, campaigned hard against increasing the national debt, and voters will be watching carefully to see if they are fulfilling their campaign promises.
Those who have voted to increase the debt limit in the past are telling new members they must make “adult” choices now that they are in Congress. Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner said over the weekend that “this is an adult game now.” In November, Speaker-elect John Boehner said that the freshmen would have to deal with the debt limit “as adults.”
But who are the adults here? The ones trying to up the limit on a $14-trillion maxed-out credit card, or the ones saying we can’t afford it and enough is enough?
A crucial question is what happens if the debt limit is not increased. Ask a dozen policy wonks and you get a dozen answers. The Heritage Foundation recently recounted the story of the 1995 government shutdown, recalling that the Treasury department was forced to juggle funds for 134 days while Republicans and Democrats ironed out a deal. Ultimately, there were no missed payments and no default on debt, so the question remains.
However, the GOP lost both the politics and policy of the standoff because the debt was increased and no concessions on spending were made by Democrats. The country cannot afford for Republicans to lose again.
Unfortunately, some Tea Party heroes are already sounding conciliatory before negotiations even begin.
This weekend Rep.-elect Allen West told Fox News, “The only way that I would ever support raising the debt limit [is] if we also talk about budgetary controls on the federal government [by] capping its spending [and] how do we deal with the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid problems, because they cannot continue to run on autopilot.”
We need more than just “talk” about budgetary controls. Entitlement reform isn’t going to happen on its own before March, so a line must be drawn in the sand now.
To be fair, the new members are boxed into a corner. They didn’t vote for out-of-control spending, but are expected to start cleaning up the mess. A possible credit default is a scary proposition and there are no good answers.
At the very least, Congress should pass a continuing resolution to fund government at current spending levels, or, better yet, make them retroactive to a previous Congress. Families are tightening their belts. Government should be asked to do the same.
It would also buy time to build pressure for serious entitlement and tax reform and debate ideas like a balanced budget amendment without going further into debt. If our elected representatives won’t take the debt seriously now, then we should spend the next two years making the case for a Congress and president who will. A major fight over the debt limit provides just the opportunity.
The GOP leadership has promised to open the new session with a few symbolic gestures such as reading the Constitution aloud and voting for full repeal of Obamacare in the House. By March, the time for symbolism will be over and we will see who the real “adults” are in Congress.
Brian Phillips is a veteran of House, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns and has worked in Congress. Most recently, he managed Sean Bielat’s campaign in Massachusetts. Follow on Twitter @BPhil202