The only thing that scares Democrats worse than the Tea Party and Republicans more than Barack Obama seeking a third term is fixing America’s debt. If you are a liberal Democrat in Congress you expect Washington to spend and spend often. If you belong to the GOP you expect to battle Democrats over social spending while protecting your own interests and toeing the line on the two big entitlements. What’s in it for lawmakers to solve the country’s debt problem? That question was answered last night. Nothing.
Why are fixes for America’s debt so temporary?
The national debt goes up reliably year after year, but the solutions dreamed up by Congress are short-term and temporary. Capitol’s Hill’s newest scheme will fund the government for three more months and bump up the debt ceiling for three weeks after that, paving the way for a New Year’s congressional spending brawl after which the debt ceiling will be raised again.
Scheduling the next debt ceiling crisis is easy. Just like a business, Treasury knows what it has to spend to service public and government-held debt. The timetable for when America officially goes broke is no big secret. For entitlements we needed to scrape up $42 billion for Medicare, veterans, and other benefits on October 1, $25 billion for Social Security on October 3, October 9, and October 16, 2013. $25 billion is due again on October 23 and November 13. Combined Medicare, Social Security, and other pay and benefits outlays mean $67 billion more out the door on November 1¹, and the hits just keep coming, largely for programs most politicians consider too dangerous to touch.
In lieu of courage the sequester gave Congress no choice.
In its greatest moment of clarity ever, Congress decided to threaten itself by forcing spending cuts. Too bad our parties lacked the courage to stand up for that decision instead of scrambling for an out (see: Halting the Sequester Will Be a Historic Betrayal). At first John Boehner applauded his party’s complicity in passing the bill that created the cuts:
I congratulate my friend Senator McConnell on his remarkable leadership in guiding this legislation through the Senate.²
Harry Reid shared Boehner’s optimism, lauding the doomed-to-fail deficit reduction committee:
As the events of the past week have made clear, the world is watching the work of this committee. I am confident that Senators Murray, Baucus and Kerry will bring the thoughtfulness, bipartisanship, and commitment to a balanced approach that will produce the best outcome for the American people.³
Reid was half right. The committee fell on its face but it paved the way for Washington to agree on cutting spending in a truly balanced fashion because in lieu of courage sequestration forced Congress’s hand. Now we have a new committee with a similar mission, proof that Congress has again failed to act.
Why the nation’s debt is too dangerous to touch.
By now we are pretty familiar with Congress’s debt dance. It never changes very much. The president warns of dangers to entitlements and government workers’ paychecks.4 Republicans threaten us with the consequences of America’s debt but inevitably trip over party spending favorites like defense and, like Democrats, find themselves protecting entitlements like Social Security and Medicare for the sake of votes.
Congress is never going to do anything to fix the national debt. Lawmakers get too much mileage out of budget confrontations and would be lost without their scheduled debt ceiling clashes. How do you push a liberal spending agenda and pass blame to conservatives when overspending is off the table? How do you decry wanton spending that no longer exists? You can’t. The demands of partisanship mean America’s debt problem will never be solved.