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Ceiling dealings

Early October budget battle is a preview of bigger fight over the debt limit

NO SOUP FOR YOU: People in New York read a sign explaining that the Statue of Liberty is closed due to the shutdown. Justin Lane/EPA/Landov

Ceiling dealings
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WASHINGTON—With days left to avert a federal government shutdown, Senate chaplain Barry Black opened the Sept. 27 congressional session with a prayer.

“Keep us from shackling ourselves with the chains of dysfunction,” Black prayed. “Lord, deliver us from governing by crisis.”

By the time midnight rolled around on Oct. 1 a weekend of governing by crisis featuring intractability by both parties led to the first partial shutdown in 17 years.

Soon the news networks displayed shots of “closed” signs in front of memorials, museums, and parks. (Some government bureaucrat even pulled the plug on the live panda video webcam at the National Zoo.) Meanwhile, conservatives stressed it was only a partial shutdown—about 94 percent of the Social Security Administration’s workers handling benefits remained on the job, for example—that may make Americans realize how they can live with less government. World War II veterans who had flown to Washington on Honor Flights stormed through the barricades thrown up in front of the outdoor open-air memorial dedicated to them.

Regardless of the length of the shutdown, the battle over funding the government is just a prelude to another over increasing the government’s borrowing limit. That ceiling, now set at $16.7 trillion, will be reached by Oct. 17. Congressional Republicans are willing to trade a year-long debt-ceiling increase for a one-year delay of Obamacare, tax reforms, an overhaul of new environmental and financial regulations, and approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. They feel that they can present this laundry list because they have more leverage in the debt-ceiling debate than they did in the fight to fund the government.

President Obama has said he will not negotiate over how much the government can borrow. But Republicans say that Obama already has made concessions. Democrats agreed to $2.2 trillion in spending cuts during the 2011 debt-ceiling debate. Polls also show that a majority of Americans believe spending cuts should accompany any debt-limit increase. Only 22 percent believe the debt ceiling should be raised in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey.

But some fiscal conservatives argue the demands by the House Republican leadership don’t go far enough. The list doesn’t address entitlement reform or slow the growth of the nation’s debt. The plan also doesn’t follow the Republican rule—established by House Speaker John Boehner—of having equal or greater spending cuts for every debt limit increase. And it fails to honor a previous GOP promise to trade a debt ceiling increase for a budget that balances within 10 years.

“This debt-ceiling package does not fix the underlying cause of the problem, which are the deficits,” said Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala. “We need to significantly cut government spending.”

Overshadowed in the government shutdown showdown was attention to overall government spending. Democrats agreed to preserve the reduced level of spending adopted as the sequester in the 2011 debate that went into effect in March this year, but it took a back seat to Obamacare in the current fight. That marked a significant if little-noticed fiscal shift that Republicans won. But that victory rang hollow for some Republicans on Oct. 1 as stories of the government shutdown dominated the day’s headlines, rescuing Obamacare from the greater attention it deserves for its system-wide failures and problems, already evident on launch day.

With the debt-ceiling debate underway, there is a small but growing belief among Republicans that to win the war over Obamacare the best option may be to let a law that still confuses Americans play out rather than make it the focus of another fiscal confrontation.

“The idea is that there’s going to be more bad news to come out after Oct. 1 about Obamacare,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., “and so the momentum will continue to build in our direction that it’s a bad idea.”


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