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We Simply Cannot Raise the Debt Ceiling Unless Significant Cuts Are Attached to the Deal

The debate in Washington over the debt ceiling is heating up. The U.S. has now hit the $14.294 trillion debt limit approved in February 2010. With our national credit card maxed out, basic  fiscal responsibility requires Congress to vote “no” on raising the debt ceiling unless significant spending cuts and budget reforms are part of the deal.

This financial mess did not develop overnight. Before 1917, Congress had to approve borrowing every single time. Due to the exorbitant cost of WWI, Congress passed the debt ceiling law to allow the federal government to borrow money as long as the total was less than the established limit. Since 1962, the debt ceiling has been raised 74 times, 10 times in just the past decade, with the last increase a whopping $1.9 trillion. The debt limit has gone from less than $1 trillion in the 1980’s to nearly $14.3 trillion. Just seven years ago, Congress raised the debt ceiling to $6.4 trillion, which means the debt has doubled in less than a decade.

Congress has raised the debt limit without significant objection most of the time. President Obama claims that “we will raise the debt limit. We always have. We will do it again.” Not so fast.

Things have changed quite a bit in the past few years. The American people are finally waking up to the impending financial crisis. A recent FreedomWorks poll conducted by Frank Luntz confirmed that 69 percent of Americans oppose raising the debt limit. All across the nation, Americans are holding rallies and attending town hall meetings to take a stand against big government. Many voters are committed to “throwing the bums out” if they vote to raise the debt ceiling. Party labels don’t matter anymore. It’s all about lawmakers' spending records.

If the average American maxes out his or her credit card, the credit card company might increase their borrowing limit once or twice. But eventually, the company will refuse to raise the limit and recommend that the borrower curb their irresponsible spending habits immediately. Washington should work in the same way.  As freshmen Senator Barack Obama said in 2006, “the fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure.”

Fortunately, some freshman members of Congress are putting their foot down. Sens. Mike Lee, (R-Utah0, and Rand Paul, (R-Ky.), are planning to put an end to business as usual. Last November, these FreedomWorks-endorsed candidates were elected to shake things up in Washington. Both lawmakers are refusing to raise the debt limit unless the measure includes real spending cuts or a balanced budget amendment that reins in deficit spending. 

In the FreedomWorks poll, support for raising the debt ceiling increases (17 percent to 31 percent) if provisions are included to cut spending and reduce future debt, such as binding spending caps and/or passage of a serious balanced budget. The upcoming vote on the debt ceiling will be an interesting litmus test to see who is truly serious about ending the federal spending spree.

The Obama administration is using scare tactics in the debt ceiling debate, with White House press secretary Jay Carney warning that "the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling would be Armageddon-like in terms of the economy." 

But it’s quite the contrary. Many economists are predicting that we will face fiscal calamity if lawmakers continue to raise the debt ceiling time after time without changing their spending habits.

The United States government will not necessarily default on its debt even if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling. 

While Congress has never failed to raise the debt ceiling, it has waited until after the limit was reached. In 1985, 1995 and 2002, at least three months passed between the time that the government hit the debt ceiling and the time Congress acted to raise the limit. In none of these cases did Armageddon occur.

The fact is that the federal government has roughly ten times more income than needed to honor our debt obligations. In the event that the debt ceiling is reached, the Treasury should prioritize interest and debt payment on time and in full to avoid a default by repaying those who lend to the U.S. government. Would this involve serious cuts in government spending? Absolutely, and it should be done if needed.

Our national credit card has been maxed out—again. The last time that the U.S. government was debt-free was in 1836. We have gone astray from the Founder Father’s vision. Thomas Jefferson stated that "I, however, place economy among the first and most important virtues, and public debt as the greatest of dangers to be feared.” 

Now is not the time to raise the debt ceiling unless significant spending cuts are attached to the deal. If not, lawmakers should vote “no” on principle. Fiscal conservative lawmakers must stand their ground in this debate.

Matt Kibbe is president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a nation-wide grassroots organization fighting for lower taxes, less government and freedom and the author of Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto.

Matt Kibbe is the president of FreedomWorks and author of the "Hostile Takeover: Resisting Centralized Government's Stranglehold on America" (William Morrow 2012) Follow him on Twitter at @MKibbe.