It’s been a week now since members of Congress came to their last-minute agreement to end the showdown over the government shutdown and debt ceiling. Some lawmakers glowed with satisfaction, others were simply relieved.
And although what they did was essential, they shouldn’t consider it any more than step one. All they really accomplished was to agree to fund the federal government through Jan. 15 — three months — and raise the debt ceiling long enough to extend the government’s borrowing authority for three weeks beyond that — Feb. 7. They’re marvelous can kickers.
Much has been said about the provision in the agreement calling for a bipartisan committee to develop a long-term budget plan by mid December. The co-chairs are Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who was Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee. To their credit, they’ve mostly said the right things.
But that isn’t reason for Americans to be any more optimistic that this committee will do in a couple of months what the “supercommittee” was unable to accomplish two years ago despite knowing that its failure would result in the sequestration cuts that most considered the worst possible outcome.
This committee needn’t worry about such a dire outcome, in part because the sequester cuts are under way. The worst outcome of this committee’s inability to reach a budget deal is the threat of another shutdown — something even most Republicans want to avoid.
What’s more, this committee’s prospects for a budget compromise are negligible unless and until Republicans are willing to accept some new tax revenue as part of the solution. That seems unlikely in the extreme, which all but ensures that the status quo will be maintained.
Also unlikely is that a Congress as divided as this one will agree on a measure that will remove permanently the threat of a showdown over raising the debt ceiling. That could be done by doing away with it.
A debt ceiling is not called for in the U.S. Constitution and most other nations don’t operate with one, though that could well be because they don’t have our level of debt.
What’s often overlooked or dismissed — particularly by tea partiers — is that raising the debt ceiling does not allow the government to accumulate more debt. Rather, it enables our government to pay the debts Congress has already approved.
We can’t recall any shutdown threats accompanying Congress’s spending decisions.