For the eleventh time in the last ten years, Washington is debating raising the federal debt ceiling. It's been an uncomfortable vote in the past: Congress is much more comfortable supporting spending programs than actually having to account for the tab they create.
Yet this debt ceiling debate is different. A few fiscal conservatives always seize on the occasion to highlight Washington's profligacy and waste, but in years past, even the most sincere knew that it would, at best, be an educational exercise for the public. There was no real expectation that the ceiling wouldn't inch up again, and Washington continue with business as usual.
Not so this time around. The Treasury Secretary and White House economists trumpet warnings of economic calamity if the debt ceiling isn't raised. Members aren't buying it. They are listening to the credit rating agencies, international economists, and other entities not under Washington's thumb that warn not about failure to raise the debt limit, but about the U.S.'s current trajectory of debt, which is unsustainable and not just in the long-term. Those around the world shudder when contemplating what a U.S. economy, buried under Greek-like levels of debt, will mean for the world economy.
The public also increasingly understands that failing to raise the debt ceiling doesn't mean default. Even after the new drop dead August deadline pronounced by the Treasury Secretary (yes, that's about the fourth deadline he's offered), the federal government will have enough income to make payments on loans. Rather than defaulting, government officials could choose to cut funds to other government spending programs and keep paying loan obligations.
Benefactors of business-as-usual Washington will want to make that potential scenario as frightening and unthinkable as an actual default. If cuts have to be made, they'll suggest we start with the military. Soldiers in harms way won't get paid on time, because Radical Right Wingers want to grandstand about deficits, rather than doing the grown-up thing and just raising the debt ceiling. That may be the line they'll push, but they are likely to find a skeptical public.
American voters have become more aware of how Washington uses, and mis-uses, their tax dollars. They know that military pay and core government functions need not be on the chopping block as Washington seeks to cut back. They know billions—in fact hundreds of billions—are spent on programs of dubious value and Constitutionality. The Department of Commerce is rife with corporate welfare; the Departments of Education and Labor, with duplicative, ineffective programs. Americans may have tolerated such waste during the roaring 90s and even the early part of last decade, but today, as millions of families suffer from chronic unemployment, they are learning to get by with less. They think government should too.
Breaching the debt limit doesn't scare the public, who has heard the Chicken Little routine of the economy falling many times before to justify expanding government. And public skepticism has opened the door for serious members of Congress to make this debt limit debate not simply an accounting exercise, but a moment to consider actual reforms to how the government does business, how to actually put the breaks on government's habitual runaway spending.
A growing number of political leaders, including numerous presidential candidates, are signing a “Cut, Cap, and Balance” pledge http://cutcapbalancepledge.com/ supported by scores of nonprofit and activist organizations that any agreement to raise the debt ceiling include immediate, significant cuts in government programs, the passage of a statutory spending cap that would require government spending remains in line with historical norms of between 18 and 20 percent of GDP, and a balanced budget amendment that creates a spending limit and requires a super-majority for raising taxes.
Some may try to tar such proposals as “radical,” but continuing on the present course toward near certain economic crisis is surely the more radical course. A recent poll cited by Public Notice http://www.bankruptingamerica.org/2011/07/public-pulse-your-opinions-our-new-video/ found that just 13 percent of the public want to raise the ceiling without any conditions, compared to 39 percent who want it raised with spending cuts and 42 percent who don't want it raised at all. By a two-to-one margin those who don't support raising the debt limit in exchange for spending cuts do so because of their concern that Congress will cut too little, rather than too much. Interestingly, women are less likely than men to buy the line that the debt limit “has” to be raised.
This debate about the debt limit has become at it's core a debate about much larger questions. Just how large are we going to let government grow? Are we ever going to take the need to cut spending seriously? It's increasingly clear that the public wants action—real, meaningful reform to the way Washington does business and a halt to the run up of debt—and they want it now. Is Washington listening? We will soon know.