The House Republican leadership did the right thing Tuesday, allowing the chamber to approve a bill that would raise the debt ceiling for one year unconditionally. The move doesn't end the fight over federal budget deficits and the growing national debt. It just allows the debate to continue without causing needless damage to the economy.
Congress committed itself in December to borrow more than the current $17-trillion limit when it adopted a bipartisan budget that included more than half a trillion in deficit spending. Lawmakers confirmed that commitment in January when they approved an omnibus spending bill that hewed to the budget agreement. Nevertheless, many Republicans wanted to take the debt-ceiling bill hostage to extract new concessions from the Democrats who control the Senate and the White House.
The first hurdle GOP leaders encountered was their inability to unite their fractious membership behind a single demand, whether it was approving the Keystone XL pipeline, rolling back Obamacare or reversing the recent cuts to certain military pensions. That's what happens when you ditch what had been a principled (albeit wrongheaded) approach to the debt ceiling — Speaker John A. Boehner's demand that any increase in the limit be matched by cuts in future spending — in favor of opportunism.
The second and more serious hurdle was Democrats' insistence that the debt limit be raised with no strings attached. Their position was grounded in good public policy: Raising the debt limit doesn't authorize more spending; it merely allows Washington to keep the commitments that it has already made.
Many House Republicans voted against raising the debt limit in the apparent hope that the public won't hold them accountable for the continuing deficits. If they're really serious about the growing debt, though, they'll get working on bills to solve the main source of the government's long-term fiscal problems: the rising cost of healthcare entitlements, such as Medicare and Medicaid. So far, they've addressed those issues only with rhetoric, not legislation.
If only the lawmakers who so fearlessly threatened to default on Treasury bonds and stiff federal creditors — which would cause financial markets to panic and the economy to tank if it ever came close to happening — had the political fortitude to pass a bill that actually reins in the growth of Medicare and Medicaid over the coming decades. At least we can all be thankful that the House GOP decided not to play chicken with the debt limit this time. Congress may not be doing much to help the economy, but at least it has stopped undermining it with manufactured crises.