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On the Economy

Debt ceiling debate: the opportunity costs

Debt ceiling discussions are taking up huge amounts of legislative time. But should the president be able to raise the debt ceiling on his own?

By Jared BernsteinGuest blogger / July 13, 2011

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 12, 2011, as debt ceiling negotiations continued. Should Obama be the one to make the call about raising the debt ceiling?

Susan Walsh / AP

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We live at a time of 9.2% unemployment, with tens of millions un- and underemployed. The job market is stuck in neutral—if the economy were a bicycle, it would be wobbling along, threatening to keel over unless the rider paid some attention to the pedals.

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And yet, instead of dealing with this fundamental challenge to the living standards of everyday people, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, spent the day figuring out a way to avoid having to vote to raise the debt ceiling.

Clearly, he’s in the same mode as his house colleagues, who now argue that “it’s the administration’s debt ceiling.”

The proposal would have the President call for increasing the debt ceiling, and that call would trigger an equal-sized (nonbinding) cut in spending. The Congress could vote against raising the ceiling, but they’d need a veto-proof majority to make that vote stick.

I’ve seen a bunch of analysis suggesting that Obama should like this deal. He can raise the debt ceiling on his own, get credit for proposing spending cuts, and leave it to Congress to enact them or not. Sure, he and the D’s (assuming they’d support his veto if the R’s “disapproved” of the debt increase) get tagged with raising the ceiling, but hey, that’s the price of being the grown ups.

Maybe this is the President’s best option if no others open up. It does present a way for R’s to avoid triggering default without getting their fingerprints on the debt ceiling increase, and maybe that’s the best we can get.

But I don’t like it (I doubt House R’s will like it either, since it practically insures a debt increase with no commitment to spending cuts). It’s a cynical ploy, an admission that you won’t take the responsibility to do the right thing, and it pretty deep complexity to what should be, and has been in the past, a pro forma vote against wholly avoidable economic pain.

Also, consider the opportunity costs being expended here. Every legislative moment spent figuring out how to game the debt ceiling is not being spent preventing that bicycle from toppling over.

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