When lawmakers return to Congress after their spring recess, the national debt will get most of their attention, as it should. Members of Congress will soon have to decide whether to vote to raise the debt ceiling. In years past, this has been, after speeches about the dangers of the growing national debt, a nearly automatic tally. This year, however, it is the focal point of conflicting political ideologies.
What can’t be lost in the soon-to-begin debate is that the current situation is not sustainable, but neither are arbitrary spending caps nor cuts aimed more at punishing certain groups than balancing the federal budget.
The debt ceiling debate is framed by two budget proposals — one, which is pretty general, from President Barack Obama and one from House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin.
Rep. Ryan’s plan has been dismissed as extreme and punitive, which it is. Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, recently said she wouldn’t support the Ryan plan but praised him for putting together a comprehensive plan and called on the president to do the same.
More important than the plans will be the political will to act on them.
Last week, Standard & Poor’s, a rating agency, said it was lowering the country’s debt outlook from “stable” to “negative.” The S&P left its rating the same at AAA.
The agency made the change, not so much because of the growing debt, but because it worries that politicians in Washington won’t do anything about it.
“More than two years after the beginning of the recent crisis, U.S. policymakers have still not agreed on how to reverse recent fiscal deterioration or address longer-term fiscal pressures,” S&P credit analyst Nikola Swann said in an April 18 press release announcing the potential outlook downgrade.
The statement called the president’s and Rep. Ryan’s proposals “starting point[s].” But, it worried about how long it will take Congress to reach agreement on a plan to reduce the debt, then for the public to accept it and, later, for such a plan to have any effect.
“We see the path to agreement as challenging because the gap between the parties remains wide,” the press release said.
While not a ringing endorsement of the ability of the president and Congress to do anything meaningful, it should be a call to action, because further delay is unacceptable.