House Speaker John Boehner announced today that the House will vote tonight on a “clean” bill to increase the debt limit through March 2015. This marks a welcome change from the Republicans’ recent — and costly — strategy of holding the debt limit hostage to other policy proposals.
Raising the debt limit simply allows the government to pay its bills. Spending and revenue decisions are made elsewhere — through the annual appropriations process and the laws that authorize Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlement programs and shape the tax code. By the time the debt ceiling needs to be increased, policymakers cannot refuse to pay the government’s bills without incurring serious consequences, including default.
That hasn’t stopped Republicans in recent years from tying legislation to raise the debt ceiling to policy proposals that they couldn’t pass otherwise. Those games have real-world costs: the 2011 debt-limit standoff led to a downgrade in U.S. government debt and effects on the financial markets lingered for months, the Treasury Department reported.
This history makes it clear that the debt limit is no place for politics. Policymakers cannot let the government default and shouldn’t create any doubt or uncertainty about that. The potential costs to the economy, to U.S. and global markets, and to America’s standing in the world are simply too great.
While the House Republican caucus may have acquiesced to Speaker Boehner’s decision to move a clean debt limit bill, it appears that few are embracing it. Speaker Boehner himself said at a news conference today that “…we’ll let the Democrats put the votes up. We’ll put a minimum number of votes up to get it passed.”
As we have long said, the country would be better served if policymakers simply abolished the debt limit. That would eliminate opportunities for political mischief, along with the risk that the government won’t pay its bills on time.