October 9 2013

Our Nation’s Finances: The Debt Ceiling Isn’t the Real Problem

Carrie L. Lukas

When discussing the need to raise the debt ceiling, many analysts miss the big picture.  For starters, why did Congress create this ceiling in the first place if Congress is expected to merely green-light increasing it whenever the Administration asks? 

When a Senator, President Obama recognized that the debt ceilings was supposed to be a check on the overall direction of the country’s finances.  Why is it so outrageous now for this Congress to expect the debt ceiling to mark a similar timeout and reconsideration of our national balance sheet? 

The New York Times’ Joe Nocera, when lamenting Republicans’ unwillingness to rubber stamp another increase, writes that “U.S. government debt is the only risk-free asset in the world.”  Yet is it really risk free?  How long will the rest of the world consider U.S. debt (and U.S. currency) a riskless bet when we continue to pile on trillions in unfunded liabilities each year and have no foreseeable plan to pay those debts down? One cannot take for granted that the status quo will go on forever and should recall the saying that something that can’t continue, won’t. 

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) is a rare voice in Congress making these important, bigger-picture points. This floor speech is worth watching (the best stuff starts around 12:00). 

Here are some of the key quotes:

We have this big talk about a debt limit. There's no debt limit in this country. We've increased it every time it's come up. There is no limit right now in this country on the debt that we have. So we hear all these speeches about the risk. Do you know what the real risk is? The risk is continuing to do nothing to address the underlying problems of our country. The risk is to continue to add entitlement programs that have no way to pay for themselves and no reform of the entitlements that we have today, that's the risk.

…Let me put it in medical terms since I'm a doctor. If, in fact, you treat symptoms of disease, raising the debt limit, rather than treating the real disease, which is reforming the problems, reforming our spending…if you continue to borrow the money and treat that as the symptom when spending…The real disease is not fixing the real problem.

…All the politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, we want to give you a soft answer. Well, here's the answer. If you're $30 trillion in debt that you can't pay for, what you have to do is have everybody have some pain. And we have refused to do that. There's no leadership in congress to address the real disease that we're facing.

If only everyone in Congress spoke so honestly. 

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