- - Wednesday, August 30, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Washington knows how to turn melodrama into farce. That’s the lowdown on the debt ceiling debate about to be served up on Capitol Hill. It would be a laugh if it were not so serious. The oft-repeated argument that the nation must keep overspending in order to stay on course leaves the sane shaking their heads. But without a correction of direction, the unpayable bill will come due and there will be no last laugh.

When Congress returns from its summer siesta, lawmakers face a Sept. 30 deadline to authorize the U.S. Treasury to borrow money above the $19.8 trillion ceiling imposed in November 2015. That loud thump in everyone’s ears is the bump against the ceiling. President Trump, elected to trash the cash-burning culture, is making noises about refusing to agree to raising the ceiling unless the legislation includes a $1.6 billion down payment on his border wall. At a rally in Phoenix last week, he told a boisterous audience, “Believe me, if we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall.”

The warnings from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue have cranked up on cue, warning of doom, damnation and destruction if any Republican congressman — real or in name only — so much as rolls his eyes before endorsing the gospel that financial profligacy is sound government policy. So have newspaper and website headlines. “With the debt ceiling deadline, President Trump is playing with fire,” exhorts The Washington Post. “What the chaos looks like of Congress fails to raise debt ceiling by October,” cries CNN. Woe will be everybody.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan have read the predictions of doom and, properly frightened, swear they will avoid at all costs the government shutdown. The magpie media blames Republicans for every spending clash, like an angry wife berating her husband’s pinching the family vacation pennies to pay the rent. The Grumpy Old Party is on both sides this time, and invites the partisan abuse.

But sometimes responsible leadership matters. The mild-mannered Jimmy Carter shut down the government five times in spending showdowns with Congress, and his antagonists in both houses were Democrats. Ronald Reagan confronted Republicans and Democrats alike, forcing legions of federal workers to twiddle their thumbs three times in eight years. The government, and the rest of us, survived.

That the United States remains the world’s most indebted nation while the Treasury overflows with riches will puzzle posterity the way bloodletting to heal a sickness is regarded with a mixture of horror and humor today. When the current fiscal year expires, the federal government will have collected about $3.46 trillion. That sounds like a lot of money. As usual, the government has spent more than that, running up a projected deficit of $443 billion. The Office of Management and Budget expects the Internal Revenue Service to collect $3.65 trillion during the next fiscal year and after spending every penny of it the government will borrow another $400 billion or so.

Riding on loans is abnormal except in Washington. In the larger scheme of things, a fight over the money for Mr. Trump’s wall won’t make or break the nation’s fortunes. But the steady ratcheting up of the nation’s cumulative debt eventually will. Past generations of pols who stalked both sides of the aisle will share the blame, but only the living will bear the consequences.

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