We all know the quote (improperly attributed to Albert Einstein) “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” Congress must not. The predictable periodic impasse over the federal debt ceiling threatens once again. This crisis arises every time the Republicans hold one (or both) houses of Congress, but not the White House. The debt ceiling was raised three differing times while Donald Trump resided at 1600 Pennsylvania with no fanfare. Attempting to rein in federal spending by threatening financial default is akin to shouting “I love you” to your ex-girlfriend as she walks down the aisle on her wedding day to marry another guy. It is desperate. It is probably not going to stop anything and will surely infuriate a lot of people.
The time to curtail spending is through the annual budget process. The President releases a budget proposal early in the year and Congress gets to debate and modify accordingly in the intervening months by the October 1st deadline. The trouble is that Congress has not passed a budget on time in the last 27 years. For many years they did not even pass a budget but instead passed a “continuing resolution” which is a temporary funding measure for a specified limited time. Since 2010, they have kicked the continuing resolution down the road forty-seven differing times. The more recent stunt is to combine all spending packages into a single “omnibus” mega-bill and demand lawmakers pass it without giving them time to read, debate, or negotiate. Fortunately, in the approved “House Rules” of the 2023 Republican-led 118th Congress, one compromise that the GOP rebels forced before they would make Kevin McCarthy speaker was to ensure appropriation bills were brought up individually, give lawmakers at least 72 hours to read them, and allow more amendments from rank-and-file members. This was a good thing, and they deserve credit for this.
The trouble is that the Republicans cannot agree on what the budget should be. They passed a bill that they knew would be rejected by the Senate. The bill was more a publicity stunt for voters. The bill proposes spending goals would freeze budgets to 2022 levels. The agencies and programs that might be spared or cut further are not specified. They would raise work requirements of low-income Americans receiving food stamps and health insurance. The plan hopes to block Biden’s student debt cancellation of $10K. They want to cut some of the money already approved to modernize the IRS. They hope to repeal green energy programs, including tax credits for electrical vehicles, which were passed in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act.
“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” said the Wizard of Oz as Toto ripped the curtain away. The “magical” thinking of the House bill will not work or ever pass. Veteran groups have already sounded the alarm regarding cuts and if those programs are spared, other “non-defense discretionary programs” such as border security, agriculture, highways, etc. would need to be cut by an average of 23%. Matt Gaetz proposed the work requirement for low-income recipients of Medicare and food stamps, but it was rejected as unworkable, then McCarthy put it back in anyway. Arkansas tried this approach in 2018, but it was stopped a year later because the reporting mechanisms were poorly implemented, and it caused more problems than it solved. A workable program at the federal level would surely require thoughtful implementation and more bureaucracy. Global warming concerns aside, if we walk away from green energy technologies, we will just be handing more technology over to China so they can dominate and sell to the world, including us. Finally, cutting IRS modernization means lost tax revenue and fraud increases. In 1939, Congress instituted a limit on total accumulated debt which we now refer to as the debt ceiling. In the 84 years since then, Congress has raised the debt limit roughly ninety-eight times. Denmark is the only other country that has a debt ceiling that requires legislatures to raise it. Other countries are too smart to threaten their economy by threatening fiscal default. It is high time to let the bride walk unhindered down the aisle, move on, and responsibly govern.