Welch: Debt Ceiling Debate Perilous for Both Sides

Posted March 28, 2011 at 7:03pm

America pays its bills. It always has. It always will.

That Washington is now engaged in a debate over whether the nation will honor its debts and obligations, then, should come as a surprise. But playing political football with the occasionally necessary vote to raise the nation’s debt ceiling is as predictable as a Twitter rant from Charlie Sheen.

The predictability of this debate should not, however, detract from its seriousness. Holding the nation’s full faith and credit hostage for political gain could imperil a fragile economic recovery and sow the seeds of a global economic meltdown. And while there is an enormous temptation on both sides of the aisle to use this debate to their advantage, the political peril for each party is enormous.

Democrats have a real opportunity to get ahead of this debate and state the obvious: We will not default on our debts. Our party has the opportunity to get behind a clean bill with no extraneous provisions — to separate an important but unrelated battle on future spending from an unpalatable but, ultimately, necessary decision to pay our current bills.

Historically, the minority party in Congress votes against raising the debt limit, forcing the majority party to whip its members into casting politically painful votes in favor. House Democrats who believe that voting against raising the ceiling will either bolster their fiscal responsibility bona fides — or, more cynically, force the hand of a Republican majority with a restive tea party base — misread the will of the American people. If we engage in escalating the rhetoric and playing brinksmanship with the nation’s fiscal credibility, the American people will rightly say, “A pox on both your houses.”

Furthermore, if Democrats allow ourselves to conflate the issues in front of us and trade budget cuts for a debt ceiling vote, we will be playing a game that we cannot win. Republicans will have forced our hand, and we will find ourselves acceding to the demands of a party willing to take hostage our nation’s full faith and credit.

Instead, Democrats should tell it like it is. Raising the debt ceiling is not agreeing to future spending. It is simply honoring past commitments. It is acknowledging the unfortunate reality that, for too long, neither party has taken seriously our responsibility to live within our means.

The peril facing Republicans, should they ultimately decide to gamble a fragile economic recovery on appeasing the most ardent believers in their party, is equally great. When they handed control of the House to the GOP last fall, voters were expressing a desire to get the nation’s fiscal house in order. If Republicans push the economy to the brink in the name of overzealous spending cuts, they will have misinterpreted the will of the American people and overplayed their hand.

Yes, it is long past time we get serious about tackling the nation’s ever-growing deficits. But the average American family drawn into serious debt cannot simply threaten to stiff its creditors. It must rein in its spending in the future, but it must also take responsibility for the debt it has incurred in the past.

Democrats can neither control nor predict whether our Republican counterparts are really willing to play chicken with the American economy. But we can state clearly and unequivocally to the American people that our party takes the nation’s full faith and credit seriously. We should get behind a clean bill to raise the debt ceiling and allow our colleagues on the other side of the aisle to explain whether their notion of fiscal responsibility includes paying the bills.

Rep. Peter Welch (D) represents Vermont’s at-large district.