The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler focused his latest Fact Checker column on The Heritage Foundation analogy that suspending the debt limit is like giving a “blank check” to President Obama. Kessler gave us two Pinocchios. We decided to turn the table and look at Kessler’s arguments.
Kessler acknowledges that Congress’ debt limit waiver has “received little media attention.” This is exactly why we chose “blank check” as an analogy to explain to the media and the American public what a debt limit “suspension” meant and why it mattered. It appears we at least succeeded in getting the Washington Post’s attention.
While Kessler makes a fair attempt at reporting our concerns over a debt limit suspension, he seems ultimately confused by the distinction between Congress’ power to spend and its power to borrow. The difference may seem subtle in this era of chronic deficit spending, but it’s an important difference that is crucial to protect younger and future generations from the excesses enjoyed by those in power today.
At the core of Kessler’s critique, earning us one Pinocchio, is that borrowing is merely a function of spending decisions. But this view fundamentally misunderstands the role of the debt limit as a separate check on borrowing to prevent excessive debt levels.
The debt limit grants Congress a legislative opportunity to exercise its power of the purse in making vital course corrections when confronted with the results of unsustainable spending decisions. An actual dollar limit on the debt communicates to the media and public at the front end what debt level Congress’ considers appropriate to finance its spending.
Circumstances within Congress’ control, like tax policy, and also those that are outside, like interest rates and demographic factors, both affect how much Treasury needs to borrow to finance all government spending authorized by law. When Congress finds that spending it authorized is no longer affordable given current and future circumstances, the debt limit presents a focused and independent opportunity to enact spending cuts and structural budget reforms to avoid excessive debt levels. The debt limit focuses Congress’s mind—or it ought to.
Here’s a related analogy, almost certain to draw even more ire from those who would rather see the debt limit eliminated than have Congress exercise its constitutional power of the purse at the debt limit:
When an American family agrees to take on a car payment, buy a new TV on store credit, and perhaps go on a vacation on its credit card, and then finds that it hit the limit on its credit, how would we expect such a family to react? The car and TV have already been bought, and the vacation has already been taken, and all of these present legal obligations for the family. Will the family simply raise its credit limit and continue its spending spree? Or will the family get together and discuss how they ended up hitting their credit limit and what actions they can take to reduce their spending and get on a path to live within their means? Reaching one’s credit limit should serve as a wake-up call to adopt a more sustainable budget going forward.
Kessler argues that we deserve a second Pinocchio for making a “highly partisan” rhetorical point because, “one could also argue that the Democrats acted to prevent a default on the national debt.” But Kessler’s own employer not too long ago reported the following statement in a memo from Moody’s, a major credit-rating agency, circulated on the Hill:
“We believe the government would continue to pay interest and principal on its debt even in the event that the debt limit is not raised, leaving its creditworthiness intact,” the memo says. “The debt limit restricts government expenditures to the amount of its incoming revenues; it does not prohibit the government from servicing its debt. There is no direct connection between the debt limit (actually the exhaustion of the Treasury’s extraordinary measures to raise funds) and a default.”
Two Pinocchios for Kessler, perhaps?