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Mitch McConnell's cop-out on the debt ceiling

The Senate minority leader's proposal to cede the problem to Obama is bad policy, but it's better than default.

July 14, 2011

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has proposed another Washington bailout — the parachute kind, that is. Concerned that lawmakers won't reach a deal to raise the debt ceiling in time to avert a default, he suggested that Congress eject itself from the debate and give President Obama the power to raise the limit on borrowing unilaterally. It's terrible policy, but letting a dysfunctional Congress undermine the federal government's credit would be worse.

Congress capped the government's borrowing at $14.3 trillion last year, but since then has approved tax cuts and spending bills that sink Washington considerably further into debt. In fact, the House approved a Republican-penned budget for the coming fiscal year that would push the debt to $23 trillion by 2021. Nevertheless, Republicans have refused to approve any increase in the debt ceiling unless Democrats agree to deep spending cuts. Although Democrats say they're willing to do so, the two sides haven't been able to agree on the details. Democrats have also insisted that Congress eliminate some tax breaks as it trims programs, but Republicans have balked.

McConnell's new proposal, which he unveiled with other Senate GOP leaders Tuesday, would end the impasse by relieving Republicans of any responsibility for raising the debt ceiling. Obama could raise the limit in three increments, and each time Republicans could respond with a resolution rejecting the increase, secure in the knowledge that Obama would veto it and that a core group of Democrats would sustain the veto to protect the government's credit rating.

It's not a bad idea to give the president more power to stop lawmakers from reneging on the commitments they and their predecessors made. But in this case, it's a cop-out. If lawmakers want to cut deficits, they can do so by appropriating fewer dollars, rolling back federal subsidies and handouts, and changing the terms of entitlement programs. Spending, taxes and benefits are all within their purview, not the White House's.

The problem Republicans confront is that the Democrats in the Senate and the White House don't share their economic theories. Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) may both call for $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the coming decade, but they don't agree on how to get there. That's why weeks of debt-ceiling talks have been fruitless.

What a surprise — divided government means it's hard to get your way. If lawmakers can't compromise on a deficit-cutting plan now, they should at least lay out an enforceable set of targets for reining in the deficit over the next few years and stopping the debt from growing faster than the economy. McConnell's proposal leaves little hope for a grand bargain to restore Washington's fiscal health, which seems too high a price to pay today. But it also would eliminate the risk of a disastrous default, which makes it more appealing with each passing day.

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