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Debt Debate 

We shouldn't raise the debt ceiling without reducing spending.

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When former Bill Clinton political adviser and Fox News analyst Dick Morris recently appeared before a Freedom Foundation event, he was critical of Republicans who voted for “only” $39 billion in spending cuts late last year in a presidential and congressional compromise to reduce federal spending. He praised the 59 members of Congress who voted to support larger spending reductions and pointedly criticized 5th District Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers for not bucking her leadership team to support higher spending reductions.

When a member chooses a career path to congressional leadership, a member’s independence is often compromised in favor of the leadership team, and the member’s constituents are sometimes left behind. It happened previously in the 5th District to former Speaker Tom Foley, who was stuck supporting the Clinton agenda in 1994 that led, in part, to his unseating. There’s a fine line between supporting the party’s leadership team and being true to a member’s constituents. These times demand that all members of Congress pay closest attention to doing what’s right for the United States, and not just what’s right for a congressional career.

The United States’ national debt is over $14 trillion. The debt limit is $14.29 trillion. President Obama and his economic advisors have warned of a pending Aug. 2 hard deadline to raise the federal debt limit (the authority necessary for the federal government to keep borrowing to pay government obligations). Congressional failure to raise the debt ceiling threatens to weaken American economic credibility, jeopardizing credit instruments, America’s credit rating, economic well-being and job recovery.

Vice President Joe Biden and congressional leaders have been negotiating a package of reductions in order to offset a $2.5 trillion debt-ceiling increase before Aug. 2. That would make the debt ceiling $16.7 trillion. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently withdrew from the negotiations because Democrats wouldn’t abandon their insistence on tax increases as part of the package of debt-ceiling offsets.

The federal debt limit has been increased 10 times since 2001 and 72 times since 1961. Each time the debt limit is raised, Congress and the president spend up to the debt limit, necessitating another increase. Now with the U.S. debt-to-GDP (gross domestic product) ratio nearing 100 percent, many members of the U.S. House and Senate newly elected in 2010 are insisting that greater spending cuts be adopted if the United States is ever to get out from under its staggering debt. President Obama proposed a $3.7 trillion federal budget for 2012, leaving a lingering annual deficit of well over $1 trillion.

When Iceland’s economy collapsed, its debtto-GDP ratio was 310 percent. The Greek ratio is about 125 percent. Any nation with a ratio of 100 percent or more is in fiscal trouble.

America has experienced debt and borrowing since the Revolutionary times, and, until recently, paid it back. Our country borrowed to meet the national demands of war, economic upheavals and panics. It was during the national adoption of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s that the federal government became a major lender by allowing federal agencies to directly help Americans recover from their economic problems.

In 1950, credit cards became an acceptable way for the business community to charge business-related expenses. Credit cards proliferated during the following four decades, leading to a credit-dependent American society. It’s no wonder that the federal government is now saddled with its own “credit-card debt” as the debt ceiling and federal borrowing keep increasing to ever more dangerous levels.


Last week, Congress returned to the nation’s capital for the balance of July to wrestle with the debt ceiling “fix.” It’s a good bet that Congress will not fail to raise the debt limit. To allow default would be irresponsible and foolish. The important action will be what Congress does to reduce spending. If members don’t exact substantial spending reductions to offset debt-limit increases, they should face election consequences at home.

The pressure will be massive to support a deal reached between President Obama, Democrats and the Republicans. Speaker John Boehner, a thoughtful and experienced leader, has set down a marker that expects the debt ceiling increase to be the same as spending reductions — a workable solution but one that will be painful to those dependent on government payments.

There will be others in Congress, possibly some running for president in 2012, who will want more. But the debt-ceiling vote and accompanying spending discipline will be a leadership test for those we entrust with our tax dollars and the fate of the national economy. They should be litmus-test votes for 2012.

Voters should ask, “Did our member of Congress have the courage of fiscal convictions to vote to fully reduce federal spending?” and further, “Was our member of Congress willing to vote for substantial-enough spending reductions, without concern for the next election?” This year, politicians who hide behind “safe” votes disguised as bold action, and offer ambiguous platitudes to America’s economic problems, should be dismissed next year at election time.

When 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor,” they acted boldly, with conviction and on principle, believing in a just cause that has survived 235 years of American existence.

All we ask of our current members of Congress is some measure of honest and bold leadership at this momentous time in our nation’s fiscal history.

George Nethercutt is the former congressman representing the 5th District of Washington. His column appears here once a month.

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