Republicans, don't filch on America's bills

Republicans seem to have rediscovered the faith in fiscal probity they lost during the reckless abandon of Donald Trump's presidency, just as they rediscovered it during the Barack Obama years after losing it during the George W. Bush administration. On fiscal policy, there are no actual hawks in Congress, only yellow-rumped warblers, which shed their bright colors as the seasons change.

As the U.S. again approaches its debt ceiling, Republicans are objecting to raising it, even though they had no hesitation in doing it when they were running up massive deficits during the Trump years. They raised it numerous times back then, including twice in 2017 to pay for a $1.5 trillion tax cut we didn't need and that blew a giant hole in the budget.

Democrats voted with Republicans on those bills, even though they strongly opposed the tax cuts. That was the right thing to do. Loans taken by the federal government are backed by the "full faith and credit" of the United States. Without raising the debt ceiling, the U.S. could not pay its bills, which would trigger a default, downgrade America's credit rating and potentially wreak havoc on financial markets. Indeed, just the threat of default, as happened several times during the Obama presidency, is enough to upend the markets.

But now that Democrats are doing what Republicans did - spending without regard for deficits - Republicans are pretending to stand on principle. The trouble isn't only that the deficit continues to grow no matter which party is in power, burdening future generations with debt payments that will limit their ability to provide for themselves and their children. It's also that Republicans are playing partisan games with the credibility of the United States, not to mention the stability of global financial markets.

Last month, 46 of the 50 Republican senators signed a letter refusing to support any increase in the debt ceiling absent "reforms." They just didn't specify what any of those reforms might be.

During the Obama administration, Republicans used the threat of debt default to wring budget concessions. They are no longer in much of a position to do so, since they don't control either chamber of Congress. Their options are either to uphold the honor of the United States, or to stand in the way.

At a time when U.S. credibility in foreign affairs is being questioned, the idea that the American people would walk away from our financial obligations is nothing short of disgraceful.

In their defense: Republicans are right - Democrats are trying to spend too much. The party's $3.5 trillion spending plan should be pared down, as centrists like Joe Manchin are working to do. The responsible way to oppose spending is to negotiate the number down or, failing that, vote against it. But refusing to pay the country's bills - especially when Republicans have been the ones ringing them up for the past four years - would be the height of fiscal irresponsibility.

Reasonable minds may differ on the appropriate price tag of the Democrats' spending bill, how to pay for it and whether to support it. But the fact is that those questions have absolutely no bearing on the approaching debt limit. These are America's past bills coming due, and they will need to be paid in full - whether the Democrats' spending package ultimately passes.

If Republicans cannot bring themselves to honor America's debts, they should at least allow Democrats to stand up and be counted, rather than using the filibuster to block a vote on the debt ceiling and a temporary budget extension. If they do block that vote, scheduled for later this week, the result could be a shutdown of the federal government combined with the potential for a serious shock to financial markets and the economy - which, during a pandemic, would be a dangerously irresponsible and economically reckless act.

We need Congress to start working together on a bipartisan basis, without having one party threaten markets and the economy in order to score political points. Both parties have created the debt problem, and both should take responsibility not only for raising the ceiling, but also for repairing it.

Currently, the limit is set in nominal dollars of gross debt, no matter how high our national income rises. In other words: The limit on debt has no relation to our ability to pay it. To put it in household terms, if you take out a loan for $1,000 and earn $50,000 annually, repaying it should be manageable. But if you take out a loan for $1,000 and earn $1,500, that may bring on a crisis.

Congress should find the middle ground and set the limit as a proportion of national income. That would make the debt ceiling less arbitrary and maybe even force a more meaningful conversation around fiscal restraint when the ceiling approaches.

Enough with the partisan brinksmanship. Let's pay our bills and start getting serious about a national debt that is rising at level we cannot sustain - and that the next generation cannot afford.

- - -

Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, and UN Special Envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions.