Debt limit hike needed, but it’s just the first step

Congress will increase the debt limit in December. It must, otherwise Uncle’s checks will bounce.
Some senators and representatives will make a big fuss — in public, of course, otherwise, no indignation — and insist that they won’t vote to keep on running the country on a credit card unless there is some mechanism put in place to make their behavior more responsible.
A few of them have an idea that might work. What Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and nine other senators want is a special commission that would make budget proposals designed to move back toward sanity. Those proposals would have to be voted up or down by Congress without any amendment, just as recommendations on military base closings are today.
Such a commission would relieve Congress of the responsibility to keep spending within income and begin paying down the $12 trillion national debt. It would also reduce the power Congress has to decide how to allocate the money it raises. And since getting and spending are the two major functions of the nation’s legislature, doing so seems to make an end run around the Constitution.
Still, the men and women we send to Washington to do the nation’s business have proved to be almost completely indifferent to the long-term threat that deficit spending presents to the economy, and, therefore, to the welfare of the American people.

THE NUMBERS tell the story. Since 2001 the national debt has more than doubled, going from $5.8 trillion to $12.02 trillion in a steady march.
About $2 trillion borrowed has been spent in 2008 and 2009, first by the George W. Bush administration and then under Barack Obama, to prevent the great recession from becoming another great depression. The deficits this year and last were aggravated because tax collections plummeted due to the economy’s collapse.
It is more difficult to explain why the balanced budget handed to Bush by the Clinton administration went so quickly in the red and stayed there even though the economy quickly recovered from a mini-recession in 2001-02 and took off like a rocket for the following five years.
What happened is clear: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed the terrorist attacks in 2001 were fought with borrowed money. Why both Congress and the administration thought those wars were worth fighting but not worth paying for has never been explained.
Before those wars began, President Bush proposed the biggest tax cut in the nation’s history and Congress agreed. In the years that followed, as spending and the debt spiraled upward, neither the president nor the leaders of Congress made any serious effort to back up those spending decisions with new or higher taxes.

FEW RESPECTED eco-nomists would suggest higher taxes or, for that matter, lower government spending, today. The recovery is still too fragile to risk another downturn that would keep unemployment high and tax revenues low for months longer. More economic stimulus may be necessary, at least in the first half of 2010 to keep recovery on track.
But neither is emasculating Congress a palatable response to the nation’s out-of-control fiscal mess. Determining the tax structure and making budget appropriations are the primary jobs the Constitution gives the House of Representatives. The Senate must oversee and contribute to those decisions.
When the members of Congress refuse to perform those duties, they should be replaced. And make no mistake. We paid for two wars and extravagant domestic programs for five straight years with borrowed money because the president and our legislators refused to raise the money they spent and borrowed it from tomorrow’s Americans instead. It was clearly a matter of choice. Most of those years saw the stock market set record highs, saw real estate prices skyrocket, saw investment bankers and hedge fund managers reap seven-, eight- and nine-figure incomes.
The opportunity to tax that torrent of money and keep our country in the black should have been seized.
Next year’s voters can do better. They — we — can and should demand that those we send to Congress promise to raise in taxes what they spend. As the economy recovers, federal revenues will increase and the opportunity to tailor the budget to fit spending while reserving a reasonable amount each year for deficit reduction will again present itself.
There is no need to hand over budget authority to a non-elected commission to set things right. Sending responsible people to Congress will do the trick.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.