In my lifetime, there have been dozens of Congressional votes to raise the debt ceiling. Some were held during good times. Others were held during times of deep recession or war. Most of these votes have been routine. Some became the occasion for major budget showdowns, even forcing the shutdown of the federal government.
These votes all had one thing in common: They were complete wastes of time. The debt ceiling provides the perfect opportunity for empty grandstanding and for simply throwing sand into the gears of American government. Worse, the debt ceiling vote provides a cost-free opportunity to reinforce the hypocrisy or (somewhat more charitably) the cognitive dissonance, of both voters and lawmakers.
Legislators who spend 364 days per year ladling pork for their districts and supporting other wasteful spending, who oppose reasonable tax policies can spend one day giving a meaningless but generally high-decibel speech which inveighs against raising the debt ceiling. Equally galling, voters allow these politicians to get away with this. Lawmakers who do this acquire unearned reputations as fiscal hawks. Meanwhile, their colleagues who actually do cast difficult tax and spending votes (say on curbing overpayments to Medicare Advantage or on curbing the home mortgage deduction) are predictably punished by that same electorate. While voters claim to care about the public debt burden we will leave our children, the polling data overwhelmingly confirm that the electorate cares much less about the diffuse issue of public deficits than it does about whatever particular benefits government confers to them.
There is a better way. Abolish the debt ceiling, or raise it by some huge percentage so that Congress never explicitly votes on it again. Of course this won’t happen, although 90% of serious politicians and budget experts probably agree with me. Anyone who proposes to abolish this useless ritual would be tarred as someone who does not care about the deficit. I should therefore note that I happen to be a liberal fiscal hawk who favors larger government with smaller deficits. I’m happy to debate particular policies to curb spending or raise revenue. I’m happy to argue about the proper size and scope of American government. I’m less happy to endure another stupidly symbolic fight over the debt ceiling.
Can’t someone make this damn thing go away?