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US debt limit really doesn’t limit debt

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — The federal debt limit is a triumph of

false advertising.

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It doesn’t really limit the national debt. Whenever the false

ceiling has been reached, it has been raised – forcing unpopular

votes in Congress, but not the really hard ones it would take to

cut spending, raise revenues and balance budgets.

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Ranting about the debt is easier than taming it. So the same

political theatrics are played over and over again. The debt limit

has been raised 78 times since 1960. The current hassle over No. 79

is more contentious and divisive than the previous rounds because

of hardened lines in Congress, not only between Democrats and

Republicans but within their rosters, especially on the GOP side

where about 80 freshmen sent by tea party voters consider

compromise a crime.

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The hypocrisy of the whole process was summed up by an expert

witness, Barack Obama, now the president championing a debt limit

increase, when he tried to explain his own vote as junior senator

from Illinois to oppose the raise then-President George W. Bush

sought.

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He’d said in the Senate in 2006 that raising the debt limit was “a

sign of leadership failure.” That was in keeping with the

congressional pattern: Blame it on the president. No matter that

presidents don’t appropriate the spending that creates deficits.

Congresses do. But it is the presidents who must seek the increased

ceilings necessary to avoid defaulting on the debt.

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Now that’s Obama’s job.

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“When you’re a senator … this is always a lousy vote,” he said in

an Associated Press interview April 15. “Nobody likes to be tagged

as having increased the debt limit. … As president, you start

realizing … we can’t play around with this stuff.”

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As for his 2006 vote, which he now calls a mistake:

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“That was just an example of a new senator making what is a

political vote as opposed to doing what was important for the

country.”

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The sorry fact is that they have become different

things.

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As Obama said, nobody in Congress likes voting for raising the debt

ceiling. That is in part because the act is so widely misunderstood

as a vote to increase the debt. It is not. The need for increased

ceilings to accommodate past borrowing is not the cause of

deficits, it is the effect of deficit spending, voted by Congress

and signed by presidents.

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Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican leader,

put the political distaste of debt limit votes more bluntly. “The

debt limit vote sucks,” he was said to have told a House GOP

conference, while urging approval of a six-month increase tied to

spending cuts.

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Cantor, House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the

GOP leader, all voted for repeated debt limit increases when Bush

was president. The ceiling was raised seven times during the Bush

years, twice through parliamentary ploys that got it done without

direct votes.

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The current dispute is over what would be the fourth increase since

Obama became president. On Sunday he announced at the White House

that the leadership of both parties in both houses of Congress have

agreed on a deal to avoid default.

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Historically, the pattern on increases that both sides know are

vital has been to make the majority party push the increase and

take the political blame. That works when one party can deliver the

votes to do it or get enough votes from the other side to pass the

increase.

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It doesn’t work when one party or both balks at the

task.

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There’s political cover for Republicans in the increases that would

be tied to massive cuts in federal spending. But that’s been done,

or tried, before, with no lasting impact. One example: The 1985 law

that set caps on spending and imposed automatic cuts if they were

exceeded was tied to a debt limit bill. Within a term, it came

apart because Congress chafed at the restrictions and simply voted

to ignore them.

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In the 2011 version of the familiar fight, all the formulas are

10-year plans, envisioning cuts that wouldn’t survive the next five

election cycles. One Congress cannot force the next one to do

anything.

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A debt ceiling impasse in 1979, when Democrat Jimmy Carter was

president, led the government to essentially default, briefly, on

interest payments on about $120 million in Treasury bills. It was

only a technicality, the Treasury said, because the payments soon

were made.

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There were 18 increases in the debt limit when Ronald Reagan was

president. The icon of tax-cut Republicans, Reagan argued the case

for debt ceiling increases in terms cited by the Obama

administration throughout the 2011 dispute.

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“The full consequences of a default – or even the serious prospect

of default – by the United States are impossible to predict and

awesome to contemplate,” he said in a 1983 letter urging the Senate

to get the limit increased.

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Seeking another increase in the fall of 1987, Reagan honed in on

the habits of Congress.

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“Unfortunately, Congress consistently brings the government to the

edge of default before facing its responsibility,” Reagan said.

“This brinksmanship threatens the holders of government bonds and

those who rely on Social Security and veterans benefits. Interest

markets would skyrocket, instability would occur in financial

markets, the federal deficit would soar.”

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In 2011, same issue, same brinksmanship, same threats of default

disaster.

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EDITOR’S NOTE – Walter R. Mears reported on government and politics

for The Associated Press in Washington for more than 40 years. He

is retired now and lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.

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