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Why Have A Debt Ceiling If It Has No Consequences?

Republican extremists keep saying it's no big deal to cross the debt ceiling date. Then why have one at all?

There's Senator Tom Coburn picking up the Tea Party line and running with it, after criticizing his Tea Party counterparts for shutting down the government. In the World According To Wingnut manual, crossing the debt ceiling date is not in any way, shape or form, a "default."

The Oklahoma Republican said even if the debt ceiling isn’t raised, the dire predictions won’t come true.

“We’ll continue to pay our interest, we’ll continue to redeem bonds and we’ll issue new bonds to replace those. So it’s not entirely accurate,” Coburn said, saying that attention needs to be focused on long-term solvency of government programs. “What we need to do is have a discussion.”

Coburn said negotiations over the budget and debt ceiling go hand in hand because the debt ceiling is a myth.

“The debt ceiling and the CR are the same thing. There is no such thing as a debt ceiling in this country because it’s never been not increased, and that’s why we’re $17 trillion in debt,” Coburn said.

Then why bother having a debt ceiling at all, Senator? Coburn's claim is just a tiny bit more disingenuous than Joe Barton and his merry band of wingnuts, in that he says the reason it's not really a default is because we will redeem bonds and then issue new ones.

That's a little like making payments on your credit cards that only pay the interest charges but never touch principal. It also suggests that all we need is a little sit-down to gut the social safety net and then things will be all happy again.

It's also a lie. The debt ceiling exists because Congress likes having a lever to pull to force the President into their policy views. But if breaching the debt ceiling has no consequences, then why bother with one at all?

This article from the Brookings Institution echoes my own question:

In another way, however, the inability to absorb or retain the lessons of 1996 is quite depressing: rather than institutional learning, we have institutional forgetfulness enabling a recurrence of ugly motifs. Though a new generation has come onto the political scene, it hardly seems too much to ask our current leaders to remember the lessons of the 104th Congress; John Boehner was the Republican Conference Chairman in the House at the time. To his credit, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) seems to have drawn the right lesson from his experience, advising Republicans that the issue is a “dead loser” for them.

Repeating this dysfunctional process over and over, with the expectation that it will somehow deliver fiscal responsibility and low spending that would otherwise be unattainable, is lunacy. Legislators should permanently replace the debt ceiling and turn their attention to achieving workable budget compromises through the regular order—which should itself be reformed if necessary. If they instead insist on treating the debt ceiling as if it were a historical revelation, they have only themselves to blame when it delivers its predictable lack of results.

Either there are dire consequences, or there are none. It seems to me the Republicans are on the losing end of both outcomes, so perhaps they should drop their weapons and start to govern responsibly.

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