National View: A debt ceiling with backbone would help America

From the column: "What if this time is different? What if the GOP took Democrats at their word that sanity is “dead on arrival” and just let the ceiling hit?"

Kevin Siers / Cagle Cartoons

Ah, the fight over the debt ceiling. Could anything be more depressingly familiar?

You’ve got analysts predicting the federal government will run out of your money sometime between now and July if the debt ceiling isn’t raised. You’ve got House Republicans passing a bill to raise the ceiling in return for spending cuts and regulatory reforms while taking default off the table and protecting Social Security and Medicare.

And of course you’ve got Democrats screaming that even this modest attempt to rein in out-of-control spending would spell disaster for the nation. In the Senate, they pronounced it “dead on arrival.”

Historically, Democrats use financial collapse as a human shield on every debt-ceiling vote. It works because anything sudden — such as halting $640 billion in debt payments — can actually collapse our fractional reserve banking system, which is balanced on a knife’s edge. It’s a classic “heads you lose, tails I win.” Big government takes your money either way.

As for Social Security and Medicare, one of the more cynical strategies governments use to resist spending reductions is to pretend the most popular programs are the only ones it’s humanly possible to cut. Called the “Washington Monument Strategy” or “Firemen First Strategy,” they defund the parks, the firemen, the police, trash collection, school lunches, and aid to the elderly, etc. In other words, hand over the money, or Grandma and the kids get it.


Of course, they do this to protect all the other trillions of government spending that doesn’t poll well: outrageous pensions, where government workers make twice what the rest of us make and retire at 42 with benefits we’ll never dream of. Or the trillions spent on crony boondoggles funding the Activist Industrial Complex. The kids go hungry so cronies and activists get paid.

Ideally, we would have an honest media to call out “Firemen First.” And perhaps we’d have a more robust banking system.

Sadly, we don’t live in that world. So, the human shields work every time.

But what if this time is different? What if the GOP took Democrats at their word that sanity is “dead on arrival” and just let the ceiling hit?

In that case, the federal government would have to immediately go to zero deficit, meaning about $1.4 trillion in spending reductions this year alone — about 22.5% of what Washington doles out. This could easily come from crony handouts to corporations for green energy, tens of billions in foreign aid and wars of choice, job-killing environmental regulators, and bureaucrat paradises from the Department of Education to regime-media NPR.

Economically, a $1.4 trillion spending reduction certainly looks like a hit — about 6% of GDP. But that’s a mirage, a figment of the fact that government statisticians pretend government spending has the same value as if you spent your own money.

In reality, nothing’s been destroyed: $1.4 trillion has simply moved from the federal pocket to the American people. Returned to the people who earned it rather than the woke federal cartel.

Instead of federal bureaucrats hogging up real economic resources, it means more steel or construction workers for us to build factories, along with fewer bureaucrats to punish you for creating jobs. Paper GDP goes down, the economy gets stronger, the people prosper.


Beyond returning the nation to prosperity, returning trillions to the people to invest rather than squander would tame the inflation beast. The Fed could quit strangling the economy with savage rate hikes.

Finally, and deliciously, a debt ceiling is effectively a balanced budget amendment, but one that targets the most wasteful spending.

Put them together, and letting the debt ceiling work would — if Democrats stop playing “Firemen First” — make America wealthier, stronger, and the home of a smaller government that spends less on corruption and activism and more on what we actually need. The House offer is an excellent first step to getting there.

Peter St. Onge is the Mark A. Kolokotrones fellow in economic freedom at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. Richard Stern is a senior policy analyst in Heritage Foundation’s Hermann Center for the Federal Budget.

Peter St. Onge.jpg
Peter St. Onge
Richard Stern.jpg
Richard Stern

What To Read Next
Get Local