After four months of political wrangling, eyeball-to-eyeball negotiations and mounting anxiety in both parties about the “debt ceiling,” Congress finally has found enough common ground to pay its bills. But how long will these good tidings last?

First, it helps to understand just what the debt ceiling is. In mid-April House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, explained it like this: “You know, if you gave your child a credit card, and they kept maxing it out to the limit, you wouldn’t blindly just raise the limit. You’d change their behavior. The exact same thing is true with our national debt.”

That’s not quite right. The debt ceiling isn’t about putting a limit on your future spending. It’s about paying bills you already owe, such as your credit card statement, which lists the purchases you have made.

Refusal by McCarthy and his House Republican colleagues in recent months to raise the federal debt ceiling on spending the government already has incurred would be like refusing to pay for what you already owe.

Keeping that up can result in bankruptcy or worse. If they persisted in this refusal, they’d end up in bankruptcy, or perhaps in jail for fraud. Refusing to meet your debt obligation should be like spending past the national debt limit.

In other words, the debt ceiling has become a pointless and dangerous exercise, as spending constantly exceeds incoming revenue, and the ceiling repeatedly must be raised to avoid the government going into default. That would lead to a worldwide financial crisis.


But, as our politics have become more fractious, the looming debt ceiling has climbed to $31.4 trillion and poses a threat to our national well-being and the global economy.

Fortunately, with just days to go before the big collapse, the Republican-controlled House overwhelmingly passed a debt ceiling deal forged by McCarthy and President Biden.

The House sent the legislation to the waiting hands of the Democratic-controlled Senate, which gave final approval Thursday, then sent it to Biden to be signed into law.

That was close. But with dedicated lawmakers and their hardworking staffers, agreement came together in the way such polarized opposites almost always come together, through compromise.

McCarthy and other Republicans were not willing to destroy the economy by forcing a default or imposing job-killing spending cuts. But they were willing in the end to rally the moderates and leave the furthest-right extremists on the sidelines just enough to get the job done.

After months of drama, it appears that not much of substance has changed. There’s no default, no cuts in Social Security or Medicare, two of the government’s most popular programs, and no huge cuts in Medicaid, a health care program for low-income folks.


Nor was it necessary to make any move as radical as invoking the 14th Amendment to challenge the constitutionality of the debt ceiling, which might have been overturned by the Supreme Court anyway.

And there was no dethroning of McCarthy, who, as part of his deal with his party colleagues to win his leadership post, could be vulnerable to any one of his House Republican colleagues, particularly more extreme die-hard conservatives.

Of course, taking the longer view, it is easy to see that the debt ceiling bill should never have been necessary. Congress should be able to, as a routine matter, authorize the borrowing of money it had already told the Treasury to spend.

The U.S. and global economies should have been spared the anxieties inflamed by tension over a possibly disastrous default that resulted from the legislation’s delay.

It also is wrong as a matter of principle for the House Republican majority to use must-pass legislation such as the debt limit law as leverage to extract spending reductions from the White House. In practice, that strategy has produced a modest increase in fiscal responsibility.

Yet, in view of the long-running dysfunction brought on by the hyperpartisan political environment, the passage of the debt ceiling measure represents a major achievement. It shouldn’t be so hard for such valuable agreements to be reached.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He may be contacted at:
Twitter: @cptime

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