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Editorial

Debt limit debacle: A countdown toward self-destruction | COMMENTARY

The U.S. Department of the Treasury is seen near sunset in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, one day before the agency imposed "extraordinary measures" to offset the failure of Congress to approve an increase in the debt ceiling, a cap that lawmakers have increased roughly 80 times since the 1960s. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

On Thursday, the Biden administration was left with no choice but to begin using “extraordinary measures” to ensure the government met its financial obligations without exceeding its debt limit after House Republicans said they wouldn’t raise the borrowing ceiling of $31.4 trillion without promises of steep spending cuts.

But it’s only a matter of time before such efforts will fall short — most likely on June 5, according to Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen — and the nation risks default, permanent damage to its credit rating and a major disruption to the economy.

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If this harrowing possibility sounds frightening, congratulations, you are a rational human being. The same can’t necessarily be said for Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who recently sold his soul to his party’s right-wing extremists to gain his tenuous grip on leadership. This group appears only too happy to take hostage the government’s financial security (and by extension, put at risk every American’s job and bank account, too).

They are attempting to use the debt ceiling as leverage to get President Joe Biden and the Democratically controlled U.S. Senate to reduce government spending. Americans have seen this maneuver twice by the GOP since 1995. On those occasions, Republicans held a much stronger majority: In the 2011 standoff, for example, the GOP controlled House and Senate faced Democratic President Barack Obama. Today, we are clearly in more politically polarized times, which makes the risk taken by this suspect strategy far worse than in the past.

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Who is going to blink? House Republicans have already demonstrated that rules and traditions are meaningless to them through the humiliating McCarthy vote, the longest its taken to select a speaker since 1855. And now those same members are talking about impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. They are not unlike errant toddlers with hammers: To them, everything is a nail.

The best outcome is that this will go on for weeks and months. Speeches will be made. Fists will be pounded on desks by the alleged “conservatives,” for whom the very definition of a conservative as one “holding traditional values” appears lost, as well as the Democrats who surely will refuse to capitulate to the ransom demand. And they shouldn’t, given there is but a hair’s breadth difference between a terrorist with a bomb strapped to his chest and the House refusal to make payment on the nation’s Visa credit card. If members take the threatened action, everybody is hurt. There is no moral victory in plunging the nation into ruin. There is a one in resisting terrorism, yet who will remember that when the mess hits the fan? Mostly, we’ll just be left with finger pointing. That’s how things seem to work, or not work, in Washington, D.C., these days.

Make no mistake, it’s perfectly reasonable for the House majority to have their say in crafting the budget. That’s how the system is supposed to work. A lot of voters expressed support for GOP candidates in November (although perhaps not as many as expected). Let the debate over taxes and spending be engaged from the halls of Congress to the cozy GOP-nurturing studios of Fox News. That’s normal. As is some inevitable standoff with the Senate or the White House over appropriation bills. Compromises would have to be made.

But the debt limit is different. The nation’s economy should not be put in such peril. It’s worse than playing with hammers. It’s more like playing with a nuclear weapon. And isn’t it interesting how rising debt meant so little as taxes were being cut — and spending expanded — when Donald Trump was in the Oval Office? Calling this whole thing purely political is far too kind; it’s more like pure insanity.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.


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