On Monday, Timothy Geithner, the treasury secretary, reported that the country would hit its debt limit late next month or early in March. In that way, all of us can expect more words like those President Obama deployed in his press conference this week. He shared his determination to avoid what he described as a hostage situation, House Republicans insisting on deep spending cuts as “ransom” for raising the country’s authority to borrow money to pay its bills.
The president’s reasoning is sound. Recall what happened in 2011. If such bargains have been struck in the more distant past, spending reductions for a higher debt ceiling, they have involved more governing than ideological point-scoring. They have not concluded with a lowering of the country’s credit rating, or the slowing of the economy and job creation as uncertainty gripped.
Obama does not want a repeat of the debacle. He has Ben Bernanke on his side. The Federal Reserve Board chairman said this week: “The right way to deal with this problem is for Congress to do what it is supposed to do and what it needs to do.”
As the president stressed, “raising the debt ceiling does not authorize more spending.” It involves covering the cost of expenses Congress already has approved. Thus, the president, with no small amount of disdain, reminded that as president he executes the spending orders of Congress, adding that now House Republicans appear unwilling to pay for what lawmakers said they wanted.
Ideally, Congress would act responsibly, and then the necessary discussion would follow about reducing future budget deficits in a balanced way for the long term — via a combination of spending cuts and additional revenues. The persistent hope is, that is where the country will land eventually, without the drama of a potential default or worse.
Too many House Republicans have argued that a default somehow would be a good thing in the long run. Most economists and many business leaders disagree. Neither is the country well served by lurching from crisis to crisis, the White House and Congress reaching last-minute, temporary deals.
In his press conference, the president cited the failure of House Republicans to propose the extensive spending reductions required to meet their own demands. Congress also has yet to fill in the detail of spending cuts approved in the previous debt-ceiling showdown, many Republicans balking at reductions in the defense budget.
Yet there is more the president can do. The White House already has signaled its willingness to bargain, even adjust the inflation escalator for Social Security benefits. The president should take the lead more aggressively, showing more precisely how he would cut spending and raise revenue, how key priorities would be protected, charting a responsible way forward. He should show what responsible governing would look like — once Congress approves an increase in the debt ceiling so the country can pay its bills.