Debt Ceiling: An Artificial Crisis?

If you haven't visited the Monkey Cage recently, you should. There are excellent posts from Bryan Jones and Sarah Binder, among others on the debt ceiling and how it relates to broader political issues. What strikes me most about the debt ceiling talks is how trivial it all seems. I don't want to imply that not raising the debt ceiling is trivial, but exactly why are we negotiating budget details on a debt-limit vote? The two are tangentially linked but stating an artificial limit on how much debt we allow the nation to incur is very different than setting our national spending and revenue practices, as Jones points out in the above post. Your salary and rent are different than getting a new credit card. Regardless, both sides are pushing the envelope. Republicans won't agree to raise the ceiling with tax increases and Obama is insistent on a big deal. For Democrats, the deal isn't a "big" deal unless Republicans cave on tax increases. It's a pretty nasty catch-22.

In this sense, Congress has created a crisis out of something that should be, by all responsible accounts, routine. It's universally agreed that not raising the debt ceiling is catastrophic. So why are politicians gathering to negotiate a budget details on the tracks of an economic freight train? Why risk the economic health of our nation and the world at large on the spending and revenue habits of the federal government?

It's well known that during crises reforms occur. The Patriot Act was a bold and quick response to the 9/11 attacks. The 2009 economic stimulus package was a relatively uncontentious vote to pull the nation out of a recession. Examples like these define American history. As a crisis emerges, politicians find a way to get something serious passed to address the problem. The debt crisis is unique because debt isn't our specific problem. Our running deficit is. Not raising the debt ceiling won't fix the fact that the government spends too much and take in too little. In other words, this crisis is unique because it is avoidable. If politicians and political parties were functioning properly, budget talks would be relegated to budget negotiations.

In other words, Congress is feigning crisis in order to negotiate a budget deal - a deal that is unlikely under normal circumstances given today's political climate. Gridlock has become so paralyzing that without crises Congress cannot achieve normal legislative goals. While some sort of gridlock is expected during divided government, this crisis is also born out of party disfunction in Congress. Skewed procedures are placing power in the hands of individuals unwilling to compromise. In short, avoidable "crises," like the debt ceiling, may become the norm rather than the exception.