The national debt recently reached its legal ceiling. Until Congress increases the ceiling, the government can't borrow money to pay its bills - expenses Congress itself has authorized - which greatly exceed what taxes currently bring in.
In order to continue paying its bills, the treasury will resort to "extraordinary measures." As Janet Yellen noted, how long these bookkeeping maneuvers will work is not clear. But within a few months we will be in major economic trouble if Congress doesn't increase the debt ceiling. It could put a few million Americans out of work and kick off a worldwide recession.
The last time we hit the debt ceiling bankers reduced our national credit rating, increasing the government's costs when it went to borrow money.
Republicans now controlling the House of Representatives are refusing to increase the debt limit unless government spending already authorizedby Congress is reduced.
Of course slowing down the debt's increase is a good idea, everything else being equal. Cutting spending is one way to do this.
The problem is that everything else would not be equal. Our national problems and opportunities require government to spend a lot of money. Major reductions in spending would impair or eliminate programs that benefit the country and substantial numbers of people.
What would we reduce? Social Security? Medicare? Medicaid? The Pentagon? Aid to Ukraine? Help to American areas hit by natural disasters?
Although nobody wants to talk about it, there are two other ways we could reduce the annual deficit: First, we could increase taxes. Second, we could increase the collection of taxes that are already owed but not being collected.
But unfortunately, many if not most Republicans are opposed to both of these measures.
As for raising taxes, too many Republicans have taken the Norquist Pledge never to do this. The Norquist Pledge - a cheap and irresponsible political stunt - actually should make it harder to reduce taxes when circumstances permit.
No rational legislator would vote for tax decreases if he or she knew that it would be impossible to raise them again if circumstances made increases advisable. Yet Republicans in Congress have repeatedly voted to cut taxes. This is political malpractice.
As for enforcing existing tax laws more completely, the newly Republican House has already tried to repeal the recent budget increase for the IRS. The non-partisan experts at the CBO thinks this "saving" would actually increase the annual deficit, since the larger IRS budget will enable it to collect taxes that people and corporations are currently evading
The estimated $6 to $14 that the IRS could collect as a result of every dollar its budget is increased would add up in a hurry. As a witticism often attributed to the late Sen. Everett Dirksen put it, "a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking real money.
Democratic politicians share in the guilt for government's financial problems. They are naturally hesitant to mention tax increases. Proposals to increase taxes do not increase their chances of winning elections.
The best they can usually do is to propose increased taxes for the rich, but wealthy people are good at finding loopholes and there aren't enough of them for this to produce much revenue. Democrats even had trouble agreeing on the recent budget increase for the IRS.
Republican enthusiasm for reducing the deficit disappears when the White House is occupied by Republicans. They happily voted to increase the debt limit three times during the Trump administration, while increasing the national debt by enacting large tax cuts.
To invoke the "sacred" principle that the budget must be balanced only during periods when a Democrat holds the White House is another example of deLespinasse's Law (as I modestly named it): In politics, people often invoke principles in an unprincipled manner.
Or, as Groucho Marx noted: "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them - well, I have others."
- Paul F. deLespinasse is professor emeritus of political science and computer science at Adrian College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Sturgis Journal: Paul deLespinasse: Debt limit debate ignores additional ways to reduce deficits
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