America doesn't need a debt limit

The debt limit debate allows politicians to grandstand on fiscal responsibility. But the debt limit doesn't control how much America borrows. Congress does.

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    Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner looks on at right as Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid makes remarks on Capitol Hill in Washington May 14, 2011, after a meeting with Democrats about the debt limit. The debt limit doesn't really decide how much America borrows.
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America's leaders need to get to yes on a budget deal – one that marries substantial deficit cuts with a much-needed increase in the debt limit.

But that's not enough. Rather than merely increasing the debt limit, we should eliminate it.

I realize that sounds strange. With all the Sturm und Drang in the budget talks, you might think that the debt limit is essential to controlling Washington's profligate ways. It's not.

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Washington has other tools for managing its finances. The annual budget process includes a series of steps by which Congress decides how much to spend and to collect in taxes. Those decisions determine the size of America's deficits and debt.

That simple fact often gets lost in the debate, so let me say it again: When Congress decides how much to spend and how much to tax, it is also deciding how much to borrow.

Unfortunately, the debt limit allows lawmakers to pretend that they can separate the two. Members routinely try to wrap themselves in the flag of fiscal responsibility by voting against debt limit increases. In most cases, though, those members have also voted for spending and tax policies that make those debt increases necessary.

Votes on the debt limit thus usually reflect raw politics, not substantive policy differences. Everyone knows that the debt limit has to rise. But they also know that voters hate debt. So law-makers jockey to see who can win the right to vote no and who must bear the burden of voting yes.

Democrats opposed debt limit increases when President George W. Bush was in office and Republicans controlled Congress. Republicans returned the favor under President Obama and the Democratic Congress. The only times we've seen hints of bipartisanship are when, as now, divided government has placed some responsibility on both parties.

A larger problem is that the debt limit institutionalizes risky brinkmanship. In divided government, both parties must agree to raise the debt limit. If they don't, the United States can't pay all its bills. We might even default on our debt. That's the economic equivalent of driving over a cliff.

Both sides would regret that outcome. But they face very different incentives. The party that holds the White House has to make sure that the government functions. That's why Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has repeatedly warned Congress about the damage that would result if the debt limit isn't raised in time.

But the opposing party wants to extract the highest possible price for agreeing to more debt. So they have to act as though hitting the limit is no big deal. That's why many Republicans have been discussing the potential to prioritize payments (putting interest first), and some have flirted with endorsing temporary default.

The problem with that strategy is that negotiations can fail, prioritization might not work, or we might be surprised with a sudden need for funds. In short, we might accidentally go over the brink.

Even if we don't, dancing on the edge is costly. Alone among major nations, the US talks openly about the possibility of default. Financial markets usually discount that rhetoric as mere politics. As the deadline nears, however, that rhetoric will sow doubt in financial markets, inspire warning shots from credit-rating agencies, and potentially increase our borrowing costs.

There's no reason to subject ourselves to those needless costs. The debt limit is an anachronism. Congress should eliminate it.

Donald Marron is director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.


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