Both parties lacking leadership on debt ceiling

Douglas Schoen Contributor
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If there is one thing Americans dislike more than the prospect of raising the debt ceiling, it’s political gamesmanship. The increasingly partisan attitude in Washington over the last decade has cost Congress its reputation. Fed up with the political posturing, Americans yearn for leadership and straight talk when it comes to our nation’s fiscal future and debt ceiling.

With the federal government at its debt ceiling peak, they’re going to need this leadership. Soon. The Treasury Department can move around money for now, but this solution is not a permanent one.

Even with warnings from the Obama administration that failing to raise the nation’s borrowing limit would trigger an economic downturn, nearly half — 49 percent — of Americans want their member of Congress to oppose raising the debt ceiling, 28 percent say Congress should increase the debt limit, and 22 percent still have no opinion.

Tonight’s scheduled debt ceiling vote, which is expected to fail, further displays how low Republicans will stoop for political gain. Republicans are wrong to use the debt ceiling vote as a pawn in their game of electoral chess, but Democrats insisting on a clean vote, without considering some of the more reasonable proposals on the table, also lack leadership. Neither approach helps educate voters about this important issue. Ultimately, this meaningless political jockeying will cost both parties their already tarnished reputations.

In the last Gallup poll to rank confidence in institutions, Congress came in dead last with only 11 percent of Americans having a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress — down from 42 percent in the 1970s. The rhetoric from both parties over the debt ceiling threatens to erode that number even further.

Republicans are playing pure partisan politics. The party is betting the electoral success they believe they will achieve by following the public’s will is worth risking the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. The party says it’s committed to educating Americans about the perils of overspending, but in the debt ceiling debate, it’s missing a real chance to teach. Americans are deeply skeptical about raising the debt ceiling because they do not understand the issue fully, nor comprehend the consequences of failure. Indeed, in a Douglas E. Schoen LLC poll when we described the Gang of Six plan, which would most likely involve raising the debt ceiling along with a plan to rein in entitlements and raise taxes, a full 65 percent said that they would support that plan.

Democrats too are mishandling this issue, insisting on a “clean” vote — an increase not coupled with spending reform. By doing so, they are missing an opportunity to finally lead on fiscal reform. Yes, there are real economic consequences to not raising the debt ceiling, but there are also real ramifications to raising the ceiling without meaningful spending reform.

Lawmakers have used debt-ceiling votes as a vehicle for spending reforms in the past. This is how the 1997 balanced budget agreement and Gramm-Rudman-Hollings enforcement act came to be. Democrats should learn from these examples.

Americans don’t fully understand what would happen if Congress fails to act. If the U.S. doesn’t increase the debt ceiling, it won’t be able to borrow money to pay interest on what it already owes and we’ll default on our debt. This could be catastrophic: Global investors would lose confidence in the U.S., creating chaos in the financial markets; investors would no longer buy government bonds, which could lead to higher interest rates on everything from mortgages to car loans; and stock and housing prices would probably fall. All of these are reasons why raising the debt ceiling is ideal, and is needed to avoid disaster.

We all must accept bold change — and then implement hard and fast reforms. It’s time for the parties to come together on a parallel process and pass a debt ceiling increase with cuts to current and future government spending.

Douglas E. Schoen is a Democratic pollster and strategist. He is the author of “The Political Fix: Changing the Game of American Democracy, From the Grass Roots to the White House.”