Abolish the debt ceiling

Is there any greater waste of time than a Congressional vote on the debt ceiling. Can’t we get rid of this thing?

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?

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

12 thoughts on “Abolish the debt ceiling”

  1. We do that, I'm starting my job search abroad the next day. And hoping the rest of the world hesitates long enough for me to complete it, before so much capital flees the country our economy implodes. I can't think of any action, short of simply proceeding directly to repudiating out debt, which would more clearly signal our abandoning any pretense of fiscal restraint.

    Granted, it is the occasion for a lot of, regrettably empty, grandstanding. Hypocrisy may be the tribute vice pays to virtue, but you stop paying that tribute, it tells people something about where you stand on that scale…

  2. "Brett Bellmore says:

    November 22, 2010 at 9:50 am

    We do that, I’m starting my job search abroad the next day."

    BONUS!

  3. Brett Bellmore says:

    … which would more clearly signal our abandoning any pretense of fiscal restraint.

    Who do you think is being fooled by the pretense? No doubt there is some level of actual US debt which might cause the world to abandon its faith that US$ really are safe, but I doubt any particular declared debt ceiling is relevant. At some level – possibly even lower than it is today-probably more affected by some event- say election of President Palin- confidence in US will falter.

    It used to be that Republicans were interested in growing the economy. As far as I can make out they no longer care about doing this. They just want to shrink size of government with no recognition that the strength of US govt in post WWII period contributed mightily to the expansion of the US economy.

  4. They just want to shrink size of government with no recognition that the strength of US govt in post WWII period contributed mightily to the expansion of the US economy.

    In 1954, the total non-military government spending was half what it is today as a percentage of GDP; many fewer businesses had to do regulatory compliance, and in many fewer areas.

    A 1950's style government strength and a smaller government sector than currently exists aren't incompatible.

    http://www.gpoaccess.gov/usbudget/fy11/hist.html table 15 for figures

  5. Johnny, it's the difference between vice paying tribute to virtue, and vice giving virtue the raspberry. It might seem 'merely' symbolic, but the problem is what it's symbolic OF. In this case, of not giving a bucket of warm spit how deep in debt you put the country.

  6. Brett: you are aware that the debt ceiling is denominated in nominal dollars? And that simply as a feature of the growth of the country and inflation, we would expect the debt level, on a nominal level, to rise continuously? If you want to have a substantive vote as opposed to one that's just posturing, then impose a debt limit calculated as a percent of GDP. But no one wants to do that.

  7. Francis, are you aware that continued inflation isn't a law of nature? It's a decision of government. We don't HAVE to have inflation.

    "If you want to have a substantive vote as opposed to one that’s just posturing, then impose a debt limit calculated as a percent of GDP. But no one wants to do that."

    Because every time the economy took a downturn, the debt limit would have to be boosted, or we'd have to pay down the debt at exactly the hardest moment to do so. So we'd boost the debt limit every time the economy went down, and it would go up automatically on the upturn, as the GDP went back up. Your proposal is just a recipe for driving the debt limit up FASTER than inflation!

    Nobody proposes a debt limit as a ratio of GDP because it would be a foolish thing to do.

  8. Harold, they are NOT a waste of time. They are an opportunity for political theater, and theater which is damaging to the side with which you are allied. The posturing against public debt against which you are railing strengthens the less-government side. Why would they give it up? As well to ask the tide to go out.

  9. Getting rid of useless fools like Brett and pointless political posturing? I'm sending a letter to Congress today.

    Also, five dollars says that even if this were to be so Brett would not leave. He's all talk.

  10. Right… I think you'd lose that bet, given that I already work for a German company, and so wouldn't even have to change employers, but I'm pretty sure we'll never know, because the only people stupid enough to follow Harold's advice on this got their keister's kicked a few weeks ago.

  11. Brett Bellmore says:

    "We do that, I’m starting my job search abroad the next day."

    Good, one less a-hole fake libertarian.

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