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Can We Shut Down the Federal Government Even If We Raise the Debt Ceiling?

Posted on January 6 2011 7:00 pm
Scott Spiegel blogs at He can be reached at

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In a recent article on the upcoming 112th Congress, the Associated Press warned that gridlock between the Republican House and the Democratic Senate might result in a failure to act that “could threaten the nation’s economic health.”

Are they kidding?

What do they think has been going on for the past two years, when Democrats controlled both chambers and the White House, and put us further in debt than the first 100 Congresses combined? Gridlock in Congress is the best prescription for helping our economy recover.

Mainstream news outlets have noted that Republicans hold two main objectives after their swearing in on Wednesday: repealing or defunding ObamaCare, and finding a politically palatable solution to the imminent overrun of the federal debt ceiling President Obama signed into law last year.

If Republicans don’t vote to raise the ceiling above its existing limit of $14.3 trillion by March 4, when the current stopgap measure runs out, we are told that they will be responsible for a government shutdown like the one in January 1996.

Obama’s Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Austan Goolsbee declared that failure to raise the debt ceiling would have a “catastrophic” effect, in that the federal government would essentially be in default.

In contrast, if we pass a resolution increasing the debt ceiling and continue to spend into the stratosphere, the world will be fooled into thinking that we are on financially sounder footing.


An arbitrary limit chosen by Congress that will be increased repeatedly in coming months and years will have that much of an impact on our global creditworthiness, but our actual spending behavior won’t?

If I understand correctly, the purpose of a debt ceiling is to prevent politicians from spending so much that the federal government goes into debt at a level higher than that specified by the ceiling. In other words, the ceiling is set so that spend-happy legislators trolling for votes can’t overrun a predetermined limit in the future. The fact that the ceiling is voted into law means the debt level is inviolable and cannot be increased.

Something seems to have gone wrong here.

If we don’t stop increasing the debt ceiling to ever-higher levels, what’s the point of having one? What meaning does it hold?

Is it at least possible that the world might interpret our declining to raise the debt ceiling as a sign that we intend to scale back our meteoric rise in federal spending and return to earlier levels?

Hasn’t the party that failed to pass a budget for the last two years, and passed but failed to live by its own sanctimonious PAYGO “pay-as-you-go” rule, damaged our international standing more than the GOP’s failing to declare a meaningless debt ceiling could?

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