The Pay America’s Bills Act

Maybe the political world has been going about this all wrong. Everyone refers to the “debt ceiling” or “debt limit,” giving the public the impression that supporting a higher ceiling is necessarily fiscal irresponsible. If you want less debt, the reasoning goes, you should want a limit that doesn’t go up.

But this is misleading. Raising the ceiling means giving the United States the ability to pay its bills — it refers to money we already owe now, not in the future.

Even politicians find this confusing. Tanya Somanader flags this gem from Rep. Todd Rokita (R) of Indiana, who said he’ll oppose any debt-limit increase, no matter what’s in it, even if it means “the economy might get worse.”

“We’ll learn to live within our means right now, in the here and now. And this might force that issue even if the economy does or the stock market does go down, the economy might get worse. The economy is terrible it’s been terrible for years now, and the reason it’s bad is not because of a debt-ceiling vote. The reason it’s bad is because we have people who believe that by making government bigger by keeping people on unemployment checks and on welfare we’re going to dig us out of this mess.”

He added, “We don’t deserve to have our credit limit raised.”

Now, all available evidence suggests Rokita just isn’t especially bright, and his views on economic growth can be charitably described as unique.

But his point is worth reemphasizing: Rokita believes failure on the debt limit would be a good thing because we’ll immediately start “living within our means.” Sure, the economy might crash, but that’s all right, he believes, because (a) conditions are already pretty rough; and (b) “living within our means” is more important than the health of the economy.

After all, we “don’t deserve to have our credit limit raised.”

If I had to guess, Rokita seems to perceive the debt ceiling as being comparable to a credit card limit. The bank tells us we can use our credit card and charge what we want, but there’s a maximum. If we reach that predetermined limit, we use a different card have to start cutting back.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here. For people like the Indiana congressman, maybe it’s time to stop calling this the “debt ceiling” and start calling it “The Pay America’s Bills Act.” After all, that’s what raising the limit does — it gives us the ability to pay for things we’ve already bought. This isn’t our credit card limit; this is our credit card bill.

Republicans used to understand this. Indeed, none other than Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) explained just last year, “You don’t have much choice if you charge something on your credit card. You have to pay it, and that’s effectively what this debt limit is…. [W]e’ve already spent the money. The question is now, do we shut down the government, or do we fund what we’ve already done?”

DeMint, of course, is now leading the crusade to force a national default, abandoning the line he took less than a year ago — he’s not especially bright, either — but the point is, those far-right lawmakers looking at this as a “credit limit” don’t understand what they’re saying. By Aug. 2, the country will either be able to pay its bills or it won’t. If radicalized Republicans reject an increase in the ceiling, they’re rejecting the nation’s abilities to pay for what we’ve already bought.

Rokita believes we “don’t deserve” to pay our bills. That’s just madness.