NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Congress Is Unable to Control Its Own Spending

February 8, 2011

The statutory debt limit, or debt ceiling, was designed to control congressional spending by limiting the amount of debt the federal government could accumulate.  Clearly, it has not fulfilled its legislative purpose.  In fact, the government has lost its ability to monitor its own spending, says Veronique de Rugy, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Here are three myths about the debt ceiling, each one rebutted by a fact:

Unless we increase the debt ceiling, the U.S. government will default on its debt. 

  • Fact: The federal government has other options -- if the debt ceiling is not increased, the Treasury Department can make interest and debt payment its first priority to avoid a default.
  • Then it can essentially put the government on a stringent pay-as-you-go basis.

These are extraordinary times: We need to increase the debt ceiling now and will cut spending later.  

  • Fact: In the last 10 years, Congress has raised the debt ceiling 10 times, sometimes twice in the same year.
  • Congress has raised the debt ceiling 98 times since 1940.
  • Having to raise the debt ceiling again is a sign that Congress has failed to do what is necessary to get the nation's finances in order.

Democrats are the big spenders and are the party of debt.

  • Fact: Historically, the party in power always wants to increase spending.
  • As a result, lawmakers in power -- regardless of party affiliation -- overwhelmingly vote to increase the debt limit.

In conclusion, far from providing fiscal discipline, the debt limit has in fact served only as a symbolic cap that Congress, regardless of the party in power, will simply push higher and higher as spending increases dictate, says de Rugy.

Source: Veronique de Rugy, "The Truth about the Debt Ceiling," Reason Magazine, February 2, 2011.

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