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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Lee Hamilton: It’s time for Congress to dump the debt ceiling

You can understand why President Barack Obama and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle sought to cast their end-of-October budget deal in the best possible light. They avoided a potentially catastrophic national default. They reduced the possibility of a government shutdown. And they raised the debt ceiling until March 2017, taking that bargaining chip off the table until the next president is in the White House.

Still, for all their hard work, our political leaders indulged in two bad habits that they really need to kick because they wreak havoc with effective and efficient government and cost taxpayers a pile of money.

First, while they gave themselves some breathing room before the next time the debt ceiling has to be raised, they will nonetheless have to raise the debt ceiling eventually. They should have abolished it, or at least suspended it.

The debt ceiling has become a political pawn, used repeatedly as leverage by opposition parties to make demands of the president. It has driven the persistent national game of “chicken” that has so tarnished Congress’ image in recent decades. The legislative maneuvering surrounding each debt ceiling bill consumes huge amounts of legislative time that is better spent on other matters.

The second bad habit is equally pernicious: The budget deal did little to shift Congress from its reliance on continuing resolutions. The CR, as it’s known, was designed to keep government operating for a few days or weeks while congressional negotiators worked out the budget. In recent decades, though, it has become the way we fund the government.

Continuing resolutions bypass the appropriations bills written by specialized committees and provide a favored few interests a bonanza. They also keep the federal government – and hence state and local agencies that rely on federal commitments – in “handcuffs,” as a recent article in Politico put it. The CR puts the government on automatic pilot, avoids hundreds of difficult funding and policy decisions, and has become a substitute for working hard to pass a budget by the regular process. It lacks transparency, sidesteps good budgeting, puts all the power in the hands of a few congressional leaders, and invites Congress to act in a crisis mode.

Do you want Congress to work better? If so, ask your favorite member to think big and not lock into a failing system. A good start would be to kick these two bad habits.

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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