No matter what your political beliefs or your views on the Affordable Care Act, if you are a decent person, you believe in paying your bills. If you use a credit card, you make your payments every month. Same as you do with a mortgage. At least, the vast majority of us do, and there has never been any question about our collective representative—the United States government—paying its bills on time and in full.
Not anymore. Today, the honor, trust, and credibility of our government’s ability and willingness to pay its debts is being used as an ideological football in the House of Representatives. When the House majority threatened, as it did in the summer of 2011, to refuse to authorize an increase in the debt ceiling, it declared to the world—to the very people we sell Treasury notes to every day—that the United States is planning to default on its debt.
The debt-ceiling authorization has historically been a perfunctory mechanism. Here’s why. While Congress must vote to authorize it, the vote has nothing to do with controlling spending. It’s a vote to honor our commitments, i.e., fund the checkbook that pays the bills we've already accrued. Is that something that deserves a House vote at all?
An honorable Congress knows in its bones that the full faith of the United States of America is at stake. The mere threat to withhold authorization, in fact, is as damaging to our credit rating as actually defaulting. Sure, it’s great political theater, but it does lasting damage to America’s reputation and credibility, and makes one wonder how long the rest of the world will allow the dollar to remain the global reserve currency.
This is not to say that our parties shouldn't engage in rancorous debate about fiscal policy and the budgets. As a nation, we face tougher and tougher decisions and greater tension on fiscal policy, and debate, negotiation, and compromise will be essential.
And while I am strongly against government shutdowns, I recognize a shutdown is "fair ground" in a fiscal policy war. But here's the distinction between, say, the fight over health care and the debt ceiling: a shutdown is our way of biting our noses to spite our faces whereas denying the debt-ceiling authorization is more akin to biting the hands that feed us.
The danger isn't just an actual default—it is the very precedent of threatening to withhold authorization of a debt-ceiling extension. Put aside the issue du jour—Obamacare. What if the majority party in the House tied its authorization to expanding corporate tax rates to 55 percent? What if that party tied its authorization to the elimination of the Social Security system completely? What if the issue was something you personally, deeply oppose? The threat to not authorize the required expansion to the debt ceiling—for any issue of the moment—is truly a “nuclear” move.
Neither President Obama—nor any president—should negotiate on the debt-ceiling authorization. Not now, not ever. The full faith, honor, and credit of the United States of America must never become an ideological football that gets tossed under the domed Capitol in Washington. Let's make sure our lawmakers hear us out on this crucial point, and let's begin a genuine, mature, and meaningful debate on the future of America’s fiscal policy now.