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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Cease the debt charade

by John Brummett | September 30, 2021 at 3:06 a.m.

We face no obligation to set a national government debt ceiling, and maybe we shouldn't if Mitch McConnell is going to be this way about it.

The debt ceiling is a number--$22 trillion right now. But we blew through that long ago. We've piled up $6.5 trillion more debt than that.

We've done so by Democratic agreement during the Trump administration to go along with Republicans on time-certain "extensions" or "suspensions" of the debt limit. That rendered the number technically still in effect but inactive until the extension expired, at which time we could extend or suspend again.

Politicians could avoid voting specifically to add debt. They merely extended the existing debt, you see. A charade, in other words.

But it kept us from facing the kinds of silly political brinkmanship we endured when Barack Obama was president and that now we see again.

Republicans often do not work with others as nicely as Democrats do.

The Constitution says the nation's debts shall be honored. Refusing to approve payment on them--of those we've willfully incurred--is arguably actionable in a court of law.

It's best not to test that, considering that a period of American debt default would be required for such a case, and the United States should never default on its debt even for an hour.

I'm not prepared to say outright that Senate Minority Leader McConnell is violating the Constitution. I'm saying for sure, though, that he's a sly and sneaky little political operator.

He is saying for purely political effect that, since Democrats seem so all-fired to use the budget reconciliation process to pass trillions in new social spending by themselves through a simple majority vote needing no Republicans, they can just suck it up and do the same thing on the debt ceiling and weave it into a budget reconciliation measure as well.

He's banking that the nation is turning against Democrats, which seems reasonable considering that Joe Biden's approval rating has gone from 52 percent to 42 percent.

He's banking that this $3.5 trillion spending plan on which the Democrats have strung themselves out sounds too big to the nation's swing voters.

He's banking that the Afghanistan and Mexican border situations have Democrats reeling.

He's banking he can make all that seem worse by forcing the Democrats to do alone what everyone knows the nation must do, which is raise or suspend the debt ceiling.

We've already incurred the debt. We depend on perpetual cycles of borrowing to keep paying on it and to keep Social Security payments made and federal services provided.

If we fail to raise or suspend a statutorily set debt ceiling, one we've reached by what we've borrowed and what we already owe ... well, sometimes words like global calamity, catastrophe and meltdown are thrown around too freely.

But maybe not here.

Yet McConnell schemes. He sees tight midterm races in which a Democrat would face damaging rhetoric--unfair, but effective--that he'd voted to raise the nation's debt ceiling so his president could spend $3.5 trillion on Lord knows what all.

Those two things have nothing to do with each other. And Democrats are proposing taxes to pay for their trillions.

It was for a reason that I said "raise" rather than "suspend" or "extend."

McConnell knows that, by forcing Democrats to go alone on raising the ceiling using the budget reconciliation maneuver, Democrats will be required to establish a number--an actually higher and operative number. That's what would make it a budget matter. They can't merely suspend and go on with the charade as usual.

Some say, then, that the answer is neither to raise nor suspend the debt ceiling, but to nullify it. And they're right.

We don't need this purely voluntary mechanism that invites pretense and political game-playing. It gets widely misunderstood as a spending issue when it isn't. People get the idea we could control our budget by imposing a lower debt ceiling.

But the debt exists, the bills are due and you cannot discipline yourself retroactively. You don't make New Year Resolutions for last year.

The Constitution neither requires a debt ceiling nor seems to envision one. It merely contemplates the United States paying its debts, declaring, "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law ... shall not be questioned."

Forgive the clichéd analogy, but it's apt: You are free to send Visa a letter informing it that you have reached your household debt ceiling and will not be paying the credit company anything more on those time-payment purchases you've piled up on your account.

Better yet, let's all do that and see how that works for the charge-card industry. And let's see how everybody copes, and how the economy copes, with that market collapsed.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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