Suspending, not raising, the debt ceiling

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Last week, House Republicans caved on the debt-ceiling fight, at least in the short term, announcing they would approve a “three-month temporary debt-limit increase.” Over the holiday weekend, the GOP plan apparently got a little touch-up.

Forget about raising the federal debt limit. House Republicans are proposing to ignore it altogether – at least until May 18.

The House plans to vote Wednesday on a measure that would leave the $16.4 trillion debt limit intact but suspend it from the time the bill passes until mid-May. The declaration that the debt ceiling “shall not apply” means that the government could continue borrowing to cover its obligations to creditors until May 18.

This approach – novel in modern times – would let Republicans avoid a potentially disastrous fight over the debt limit without actually voting to let the Treasury borrow more money.

This is rather unexpected. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), just a few days ago, announced plans for a three-month increase. Now, it’s four months, and it’s a suspension, not an increase.

What does that mean, exactly? Lawmakers are effectively declaring, “The debt ceiling won’t exist until mid-May.” In other words, Congress authorizes federal spending and the administration acts accordingly, but instead of needing congressional approval to borrow the difference, the White House will be able to just borrow as necessary – without authorization – for nearly four months without regard for legal limits.

Right-wing lawmakers will probably balk – they weren’t going to endorse the original plan, either – but the Club for Growth said Tuesday that it will not oppose the temporary suspension of the borrowing limit. After all, Republicans aren’t technically raising the debt ceiling; they’re just suspending it.

Of course, this raises a related question: can’t Congress just make this permanent? Shouldn’t lawmakers do exactly that?

Ezra had a good piece on this, explaining that Congress is setting “a delightful precedent,” showing it can “make the debt ceiling disappear.”

[T]he debt ceiling is a hard, unpleasant vote that needs to be taken in good times and bad. As such, it’s a hard, unpleasant vote that can go wrong at any time, simply because the politics of the vote are completely out of whack with the necessity of the vote. Republicans are admitting that when they choose to “suspend” the debt ceiling rather than raise it – this way, no one can accuse them of raising it, even though that’s exactly what they’ve done.

The only problem with their plan is it doesn’t go far enough. We shouldn’t suspend the debt ceiling for three months. We should suspend it forever, completely eliminating the threat that this hard, unpleasant, confusing vote could go wrong and unleash economic havoc.

The White House has argued, repeatedly, that shifting the authority from the legislative to the executive is the obvious, responsible thing to do. Republican leaders have balked at the suggestion – in part because they get easily confused about what the debt ceiling is, and in part because they’re under the impression that this would be doing the administration a favor.

But that’s backwards. Congress hates having to vote on debt-ceiling increases, and there’s no reason in the world to keep forcing them to. They could make this suspension permanent, relieve global markets, reduce economic uncertainty, and free members of Congress from both parties from having to worry about this.

As for whether the White House is on board with a temporary increase, as of today, President Obama considers it acceptable, which in turn should help ensure some Democratic votes in case GOP leaders need them.

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Suspending, not raising, the debt ceiling

Updated