Raising the Debt Ceiling, Inch by Inch

John Boehner

Barack Obama and John Boehner in November.Carolyn Kaster/Associated PressBarack Obama and John Boehner in November.

House Republicans bowed to the inevitable today and agreed to briefly back off their threat to plunge the government into default. As a concession, though, the announcement by House leaders left a lot to be desired.

Speaker John Boehner and his lieutenants said the House would raise the debt limit for three months, so long as the Senate agrees to pass a budget. Three months? If forcing the nation into financial chaos is a terrible political option now — as Republicans have obviously come to recognize — then it will remain so in 90 days. Following through on this threat will always be impossible, so postponing its use, instead of abandoning it, makes little strategic sense.

House Republicans apparently hope that the upcoming negotiations on funding the government for the rest of the fiscal year, and on postponing the across-the-board sequester, might allow them a chance to claim the spending cuts that hard-line members continue to demand. In exchange they would perhaps agree to a longer-term lift of the ceiling. But until the Republicans formally reject the use of chaos as a governing technique, it will be hard for Democrats to negotiate seriously with them. What’s the point of bargaining over a spending resolution if the threat of another debt-ceiling fight is coming up in a few weeks, or months, or a year?

The problem is the use of the debt-ceiling to win any kind of concession. It’s true that demanding a Senate budget resolution is much less troubling than demanding billions in spending cuts. But if Republicans get anything at all in exchange for their hostage taking, then they might use the threat again for something else — a guarantee not to cut military spending, for instance, or talks on converting Medicaid into a block grant. President Obama promised not to negotiate over this threat, and the promise should be final.

The House does have a legitimate grievance in the Senate’s repeated failure to pass a budget. As the Times editorial board wrote in 2011, Senate Democratic leaders have been afraid of putting vulnerable members on the spot by forcing them to vote on spending priorities. That meant the Senate remained absent when it needed to make a forceful case to the public for higher revenues and the kind of investments that Mr. Obama has championed. Though spending targets were approved in the 2011 agreement that settled the last debt-ceiling crisis, the Senate should get out in front of the issue and stand up for its priorities with a real budget this year.

But it should do so because that is the responsibility of the Senate, not as a concession to an irresponsible threat made by the House.

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