The late flurry of activity on the debt
ceiling issue reflects the refusal to face problems until they
become a crisis.
Here’s the background on how we got to where
we are today.
Long ago, the United States paid for its
declared wars by borrowing money. It reduced that debt when the
war was over, but after the Vietnam War, the nation just kept
spending and borrowing.
There was one period of concern about the
debt in the early ’90s. Few people knew the difference between
the deficit and the national debt when Ross Perot showed up with
simple charts and a pointer to teach us about the worrisome
numbers around irresponsible borrowing.
Like most political activists, Perot didn’t
make a good politician. His 1992 and ’96 presidential bids
failed, and his Tea Party-like movement, the Reform Party, fell
apart when it tried to become an actual political party. But the
Perot effect lasted awhile, with the newly educated electorate
demanding a balanced budget. The effort became part of the
Clinton presidency, and was supported by the Republicans who
temporarily controlled Congress.
In the mid-’90s, the House passed the
balanced budget constitutional amendment, but it failed in the
Senate by just one vote. Soon the public moved on to other
issues, and when it wasn’t looking, the annual deficits
increased, and we now have national debt of $14.3 trillion.
In 2006, concern about the accumulating debt
was expressed by then-Senator Barack Obama, when he voted
against raising the debt ceiling:
“The fact that we are here today to debate
raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure . .
. a sign that the US government can’t pay its own bills . . .
that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign
countries to finance our government’s reckless fiscal policies.
. . .
“Increasing America’s debt weakens us
domestically and internationally . . . Washington is shifting
the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children
and grandchildren. . . Americans deserve better. . . .’’
Though the debt ceiling was raised that year,
many Americans agreed the nation deserved better. Some ran for
Congress on a pledge to fight to balance the budget and to
control the national debt. Part of their campaign strategy was
to take the Americans for Tax Reform pledge not to raise taxes.
This was not just conservative dislike of tax increases: an
uncontrolled national debt means a much higher tax burden on
But the issue is not whether to raise taxes
now or to raise them later. It is how to address uncontrolled
For example, the balanced budget amendment
would allow an exception for a declared war, not our recent
years-long excursions. It would require a new transparency, with
audit and analysis of domestic programs.
Obama was right in 2006 when he voted against
raising the debt ceiling, but he was wrong earlier this year to
file a budget with another giant deficit, and a need to increase
the debt ceiling. Fortunately, the Tea Party Republicans and
Blue Dog Democrats are moving in a different direction, noting
that increasing debt to pay interest on debt is fiscal insanity.
The House voted for the Ryan reform budget, and then voted this
month not to raise the debt limit unless there are cuts in
The Senate chose to dodge the debate this
week with a vote to table the House bill. Having no budget and
no plan, many senators appear poised to be replaced by Tea Party
activists after the 2012 election.
Meanwhile, the flurry of activity continues.
Everything should be on the table - except defaulting on our
debt, which is unthinkable, and raising taxes as a short-term
easy way out. We can responsibly cut the size of government now,
or let the country fall apart later; these are the only choices.
Barbara Anderson is executive director of
Citizens for Limited Taxation.