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Guest views: Congress heads where it should have been all along

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October 20, 2013

Say what you will about conservative Republicans’ congressional tantrum of the past few weeks. It’s all true.
The GOP hard-liners look foolish for embarking on a crusade against the Affordable Care Act that they couldn’t win. They look foolish for allowing their intramural differences to split their caucus in the House. The party’s dirty laundry has been exposed in a way that makes Democrats, who last weekend tried to exploit the Republicans’ disarray and raise spending, look like crisp, clean models in a Tide ad.
Given these rival appearances, then, why can anyone possibly say that, a month or a year from now, Republicans of all shirt-stripes might wind up counting this episode as the time when their priorities became paramount?
Here’s why: Official Washington’s focus now is on our national debt. Not a focus in some longer range that treats our horrendous debt as a problem to be addressed, well, you know, someday. No, debt is the focus now.
For now, arguments over defunding or defending Obamacare are moot.
Instead, a panel chaired by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., head of the Senate Budget Committee, and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, will be directed to produce a budget agreement by December.
These budget supercommittees tend not to deliver. This one faces a tight deadline. On Wednesday, Congress only funded government operations only until Jan. 15 and extend the federal debt limit through Feb. 7. Is that sufficient leverage to force a grand bargain? We’ll see. But this arrangement does put debt in the spotlight, where it belongs.
For too long, America’s soaring national debt has stayed in the background. It gets talked about but not acted on. All the while, the debt keeps piling up like snow on a mountaintop, preparing for a lethal avalanche on today’s and tomorrow’s taxpayers. The nation’s political leaders seem to believe they can safely ignore this, as if it’s not their problem. They tut-tut about the burden being imposed on future generations, then keep piling on more snow.
Our national debt stands at $16.8 trillion. It is rising every minute of every day. That’s more than $50,000 in federal debt for every American.
Somebody has to pay it back. Defaulting on the debt is not a viable strategy for getting out from under it. Even a temporary default—now, in February or whenever—only would make matters worse by raising our future borrowing costs. The options, then:
n We could refinance the debt and stretch out payments over a longer and longer horizon. That would indenture our children and grandchildren—servants working to pay for what we’ve spent.
n We could print dollars, which would enable us to pay off the old debt with as many greenbacks as we can crank out—eroding the value of the world’s benchmark currency while undermining the nation’s economic prospects. That too would hurt our children and grandchildren.
n Or we could curtail the growth of borrowing and start working off the debt that we have accumulated.
That’s the only responsible choice. This fiscal year, again, we will spend hundreds of billions more dollars than Washington collects. The key is to get a grip on spending so the growth of borrowing becomes unnecessary.
For that reason, we have welcomed the sequester—automatic cuts in the growth of government spending that were approved in 2011—as a hammer to encourage that year’s congressional supercommittee to strike a deal on deficits and debt. Hammers are blunt instruments. This one may have damaged the nation’s short-term economic prospects. But it has worked. It has cut back the growth of federal spending and locked in $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction.
There is a better way, and every cool head on Capitol Hill knows it. America needs a grand bargain that includes reductions in the growth of Medicare, Social Security and other entitlements.
The greatest impact of extending funding the government and the federal debt limit into 2014: Discussion in Washington and across America now goes right where it belongs: to the debt, the consequence of so much spending and borrowing, that looms over this nation’s future.
—The Chicago Tribune



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