Newly invigorated with a sense of fiscal conservatism by the rise of the Tea Party, Republican legislators in Congress will be reluctant to raise the nation’s debt ceiling this spring. But they really don’t have a choice.
After billions in stimulus spending and bailing out banks and automakers, the federal government’s finances are in a dismal state. This fiscal year, the federal deficit is set to approach $1.5 trillion while the debt will exceed $14 trillion probably by March.
The current debt ceiling, enacted last February, is $14.3 trillion. The president’s budget will topple that number this year, requiring lawmakers to vote to raise the limit or let the nation default on its obligations.
It’s a scenario no one likes to contemplate. Greece’s effective bankruptcy last April triggered a financial panic across Europe. If it weren’t for the European Union’s rescue effort, the country would be in fire direr straits than it is now. Without confidence in a country’s ability or willingness to pay back its loans, investors will be very hesitant indeed to finance deficit spending. It would be nigh impossible for a country to able to afford to borrow money on financial markets, necessitating deep spending cuts in a very short amount of time.
Letting America default on its debt obligations could very well trigger a global panic. Even if some conservatives oppose raising the debt ceiling, most Republicans and probably all Democrats in Congress won’t let it come to that.
Fiscal conservatives who stress the need to rein in spending have a point though. The federal government cannot continue to spend as much as it does without its ability to borrow on financial markets being eventually curtailed. A nation can only amass so much debt before bankers start to wonder whether they’ll ever see their money back.
The federal debt has more than doubled in the last decade and reached a percentage of GDP not seen since the end of World War II. It does seem, as Judge Andrew Napolitano said on Freedom Watch last week, that “this president, just like his predecessors, does not care about the tax burdens imposed on future generations as a result of all that debt.”
Because interest payments on the debt will explode in years to come, borrowing money now effectively amounts to raising taxes tomorrow. It is why Republicans should condition their approval of raising the debt limit on serious spending cuts — not just $10 billion with this department or another $20 billion there but hundreds of billions in long-term spending commitments to avert a fiscal catastrophe.