Resolving the debt-ceiling dispute in five minutes

Three weeks from today, the United States will have exhausted all of its remaining options and will lose its ability to pay the nation’s bills. Raising the debt ceiling would fix the problem entirely, but congressional Republicans don’t want to and aren’t willing to compromise.

With just 21 days to go, this is starting to look a bit like a car accelerating towards a cliff with no guard rail. GOP leaders say they’d like to avoid the disaster, but don’t like any of the proposed options.

But let’s not forget a simple truth: in this little metaphor, the brake works fine. Policymakers simply have to muster the will step on it.

A lot of crises are extremely difficult to resolve. This isn’t one of them. The threat of an economic collapse could be eliminated entirely in five minutes — all Congress has to do is raise the debt ceiling, just as previous Congresses have done dozens of times for decades.

Rachel Maddow noted last night that since the Kennedy presidency, lawmakers from both parties have voted to raise the debt ceiling 74 times. During the Bush presidency, Republicans did it seven times. The current GOP leadership in Washington has voted to raise the debt limit 19 times. (Sorry, Eric Cantor, it’s too late to pretend like this is some sort of gift to Democrats.)

Mitch Daniels, the conservative Republican Indiana governor and former Bush budget director, explained that “a responsible government” must routinely raise the debt ceiling. “This ought to be treated as the housekeeping matter it is,” Daniels said. Ronald Reagan warned that failure to raise the debt limit would lead to consequences too “awesome to contemplate.”

As Matt Yglesias explained yesterday, one effortless vote makes the entire problem disappear.

Surveying the scene, perhaps everyone should take a deep breath and recall the traditional way the country has avoided default when the debt ceiling needs raising: Congress raises the debt ceiling.

It’s that simple. The same kind of “clean” debt ceiling increase that’s passed repeatedly over the past 100 years will allow the country to avoid default without tax increases, without defense cuts, and without slashing entitlement spending. Education will be spared. So will transportation, health care, farm subsidies, and everything else. The interest rates investors are charging the American government to buy our debt are extremely low right now. The world economy is suffering from an excessive demand for American debt, not by reluctance to lend. All we need to do to keep our finances flowing is to raise the statutory debt ceiling…. Right now, though, the only crisis we face is an entirely self-created one.

GOP leaders insist they can’t do this because their political philosophy won’t let them. This might be slightly less laughable if they hadn’t already raised the debt ceiling — many times and without conditions — just a few years ago.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any potential crisis that’s so serious and yet so easy to resolve. Indeed, by some measures, the 14th Amendment actually compels Congress to act, suggesting policymakers have a constitutional obligation to protect the full faith and credit of the United States.

This entire dispute can end in five minutes, at which point, the parties can go back to arguing. But Republicans don’t care. It’s the greatest scandal Americans haven’t heard much about.