Every once in a while, the escalating drama of Washington policy debate has a genuine problem behind it. The suddenly heated focus on the need to raise the debt ceiling is such an occasion. Congress has passed, and presidents of both parties have signed, massive increases to America’s debt obligations. They are all culpable for the current situation and no amount of finger pointing can change that.
Three things are also clear to normal Americans who look at Washington seeking a modicum of competence.
First, the debt ceiling will be raised. Either it will be sooner or later. It will have either long-term effects on America’s credit rating or none. It will come either with concessions to members of Congress who are newly appreciative of spending restraint or without them. But it will be raised because, with enough damage and economic pain, not only a majority but a supermajority will vote for it.
Second, it is irresponsible for the president to unilaterally refuse to talk about the issue with leaders in another branch of government. President Biden may believe this makes him tough and resolute. He may believe the politics of the situation are on his side, but that is not how serious leaders treat issues of critical importance they helped create and are responsible for resolving. Refusing to confer with House Republicans is also politically risky because, by drawing an absolute position regarding any negotiation or compromise, he undermines himself if and when he ends up at the table.
And finally, we may despair that fiscal discipline has been missing on Capitol Hill, but it does not negate the benefits of its rediscovery. The government commands resources from the economy in three ways: It taxes and spends, borrows and spends, and regulates. Now is the time to advance legislative guardrails against using future crises to expand the size and reach of the government and for Congress to require the administration to adopt a regulatory budget. It is an idea with a long bipartisan history that would create meaningful accountability measures for the regulatory state where none currently exist.