Policy: Budgets & Deficits

Examiner Editorial: For liberals, the sky's the limit on debt

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Politics,Opinion,Congress,Editorial,Debt Ceiling,Budgets and Deficits,Liberalism,National Debt

Last year was the fourth in a row that the federal budget deficit topped $1 trillion. And since President Obama refused to include significant entitlement spending cuts in the recent "fiscal cliff" deal, 2013 is likely to be the fifth. All told, the total public debt has risen from $10.6 trillion the day Obama was inaugurated to $16.4 trillion today. To put that in perspective, the entire U.S. economy produces only $15.8 trillion annually.

To be sure, Obama is not the only one to blame for our current national debt. The first clause of Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution clearly gives Congress the power to "lay and collect taxes" and to "provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States."

Congress controlled the purse strings when federal spending reached 23.6 percent of GDP in 2012, a level of spending not witnessed since the height of World War II. And today's spending is not driven by war mobilization -- as a percentage of GDP, military spending is actually at historic lows.

Today's deficits are driven by entitlement spending -- specifically by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. According to the Congressional Budget Office, these three programs alone made up 45 percent of all federal spending in 2012. Along with Obamacare, these four entitlement programs will eat up 57 percent of all federal spending by 2022. We can't solve our debt problem without solving our entitlement spending problem.

Fortunately, the U.S. Constitution granted Congress another enumerated power to help control federal spending. The second clause of Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power "to borrow money on the credit of the United States." Since 1917, Congress has controlled federal borrowing through Chapter 31, Section 3101 of the U.S. Code, more commonly known as the debt limit.

Democrats in Congress raised the debt limit three times between 2009 and 2010, and they could have raised it again in the lame-duck session after Republicans won the 2010 midterm elections. But Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., insisted on waiting till Republicans took control of the House, telling reporters at the time, "I want the Republicans to have some buy-in on the debt."

But when Republicans demanded real cuts to entitlement spending in return for their "buy-in on the debt," Democrats balked at their asking price. Instead, the fever swamps of the Left cooked up a crazy legal theory that a clause in the 14th Amendment directing the federal government to honor its Civil War debt also granted the Treasury secretary unlimited power to borrow money. The Obama administration rightly rejected this banana republic-like option.

Now that the Treasury is near the debt limit yet again, liberals have cooked up an even crazier scheme to avoid much-needed structural entitlement reform. This time, they claim that a 1997 statute passed to authorize the minting and selling of commemorative coins also authorizes the Treasury secretary to mint unlimited amounts of money. The Treasury could then deposit these coins at the Federal Reserve and use those funds to pay off our debts. The Obama administration has yet to comment on the collectible coin solution.

The debates over our nation's debts and deficits can be tense. At moments of levity, the 14th Amendment and collectible coin schemes are both good for a chuckle. But our country also faces real and tough problems that demand real solutions. The Left does itself and the nation no favors by taking these schemes seriously.

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