Beware of the debt ceiling myth

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 25, 2014 - 7:18 PM

It pays for bills already incurred, not new federal spending.

There’s a commonly held but incorrect notion that voting against the debt ceiling reins in new spending commitments. Minnesotans should think of such claims as the political equivalent of buckthorn — a pesky, destructive weed that once dug into your yard seems nearly impossible to eradicate.

Despite all of the budget wonks (and editorial writers) who have labored to pull this misconception out by its roots, the debt ceiling fallacy sprouts anew as each election season comes around or as another budget battle brews in Congress. This fall’s campaign is no exception.

The perennial misconception has burst forth early in Minnesota, rating a mention in a political ad run by an outside group on behalf of a U.S. Senate candidate. According to the ad, voting to raise the debt ceiling, which Congress has done in recent years and will have to do again in 2015, allows President Obama to spend more.

The reality is that raising the ceiling allows the United States to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized or enacted. And while some misguidedly view any government spending as wasteful, generally this spending is on programs that most people like, such as Medicare, veterans’ benefits or medical research. The latter is particularly important to Minnesota’s economy, which relies heavily on the state’s world-class medical centers and medical-device companies.

As numerous experts have stated, voting against the debt ceiling is akin to making purchases and then deciding that you’re not going to pay the bill. It’s not responsible for individual consumers to do this. It’s downright reckless when some lawmakers toy with it. The gamesmanship over raising the debt ceiling in 2011 roiled financial markets and led to a downgraded U.S. credit rating.

Spending does need to be brought into better balance with federal revenues. Putting the full faith and credit of the United States at risk by voting against any debt ceiling increase is not the way to accomplish this.

Instead, it will take politicians from both parties who can agree on ways to smartly balance future budgets, while inflicting the least amount of pain on the economy and those who depend on government programs such as Medicare. Minnesotans ought to look for candidates who understand this and vote accordingly.

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