Conservatives Should Take Full Advantage of the Debt Ceiling

By Sutton Truluck, Research Assistant at Heritage Action for America.

On Sunday, the Trump administration formally requested Congress pair an 18-month suspension of our nation’s debt ceiling with much-needed emergency spending for Hurricane Harvey relief. Today, President Trump reportedly endorsed the idea of pairing Harvey spending with a short-term suspension of the debt ceiling — an idea pitched by congressional Democrats.

That approach should be a non-starter. This might be politically convenient, but as Heritage summarized, would result “[in] another bad budget deal. Rather, Congress should address the debt limit separately, and adopt spending controls before raising the debt limit again.”

Specifically to Harvey funding and the debt ceiling, Heritage Action’s Michael Needham voiced concern that especially when emergency considerations are involved, Congress should consider the issues separately. Tying a debt ceiling increase to emergency disaster relief is simply exploiting people that lost their homes and businesses to continue Washington’s spending binge.

As The Heritage Foundation recently advised, with the national debt nearing $20 trillion, Congress must rein in spending before raising the debt ceiling again. Conservatives should fight, as they have traditionally, to use the debt ceiling debate to addresses our nation’s serious fiscal challenges.

To be sure, the media will push false and exaggerated claims by partisan Democrats — while the bipartisan establishment attempts to shrug off the issue entirely. Ultimately, conservatives must insist that any debt ceiling increases achieve meaningful reforms to Washington’s bipartisan sending problem.  The deal reportedly struck by the president and Democrat leaders suggest the upcoming fiscal fights will be tough, but Americans deserve an honest debate from Washington. It is almost impossible to overstate the scope of the problem and there are plenty of policy solutions worth fighting over. But conservatives should also focus on rebutting the politically motivated myth that undermined recent debt ceiling debates.

Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action, exposed this myth:  

The simple act of refusing to raise the debt ceiling would not cause America to default on its public debt… Reaching the debt ceiling would not be catastrophic, nor would taking the time to couple raising the debt limit with common-sense policy changes aimed at getting our fiscal house in order. What would be catastrophic is a continuation of the status quo… Now is not the time for rhetoric, strategic ambiguity, or empty promises.

The reality, as Heritage explains, is the government would not immediately default on its debt payments as a result of hitting the debt ceiling since tax revenues continue flowing into Treasury. The Obama administration was simply wrong when it said failure to raise the debt ceiling would “precipitate a default” and “have catastrophic economic consequences.”

The Trump administration has peeled back rhetoric in favor of the more truthful “critical” description mentioned above — but still relies on the default myth to tamp down demands from Congress. The administration should instead work with Congress to raise the debt ceiling in a responsible way.

Meanwhile, the Washington establishment is pained that the debt ceiling even exists. Republican members facing reelection complain that their vote to saddle the country with even more debt amounts to political suicide — as their primary opponents inevitably use it against them on the campaign trail.

This might be the case (and thankfully often is) but incumbents can do something about it instead of kicking the can down the road — the ceiling was created by legislation that was signed into law and any changes to the law require new legislation. This happens routinely. Members have ample opportunity to push for course corrections — to reform entitlements, reduce discretionary spending, or correct the legislative processes that lead to annual deficits in the first place.

This is what voters want. It fueled the Tea Party movement that sent fiscally responsible conservatives to Washington. When they got there, they delivered on campaign promises by passing the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA). The BCA made debt ceiling increases contingent upon long term course corrections. It established limits or “caps” on discretionary spending to ensure future Congresses could not relapse into reckless spending addictions.

The debt ceiling is a unique tool for reigning in government. It deserves separate deliberation and should not be combined, as recent reports suggest might be the case in September, to unrelated government funding bills or emergency funding for Hurricane Harvey relief. As The Heritage Foundation explained last week, emergency spending must meet five criteria: necessary, sudden, urgent, unforeseen, and not permanent.

When Congress backs itself into time constraints, the regular legislative process is generally abandoned. The results are disastrous backroom deals rammed through at the last minute. “Must pass” spending bills are the worst offenders because the consequences of not passing them are the highest — government “shutdown”. Spending bills are notoriously riddled with special interest carve outs because of who gets to draft them and what they entail — appropriations committee members picking and choosing detailed spending specifics.

The debt ceiling should not be thrown into this mess. As Heritage notes, the “consequences of reaching the debt limit are quite different from the consequences of a government shutdown as a result of the inability of Congress and the President to agree on spending levels for government agencies.” Congress has more time and options on raising the ceiling than on funding the government — the debt ceiling should remain separate as to control, not enable, spending.

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