- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The U.S. comptroller general told lawmakers Wednesday they should rethink how they deal with the nation’s debt ceiling, suggesting that repeated fights and brinkmanship on the issue threaten the full faith and credit of the federal government.

Gene Dodaro said lawmakers could tie the borrowing limit to budget bills or they could give the Treasury Department more authority to pay bills when they come due.

But he suggested that something should be done to end the unseemly debt limit fights that have plagued Congress in recent decades.

“The current approach is divorced from the appropriation process,” said Mr. Dodaro, who is the head of the Government Accountability Office. “And all it does is authorize Treasury to borrow the money to pay the bills Congress and the president have already authorized.”

The national debt recently surpassed $22 trillion as the government went on a debt limit holiday, ratcheting up the ceiling as agencies borrowed and spent to carry out the bills Congress approved.

But the debt ceiling snapped back into place last week in accordance with a 2018 law.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he is suspending payments to two federal retirement funds to push off a potential breach.

The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that Treasury would be able to use those “extraordinary measures” to stave off a breach until late September or early October, giving lawmakers time before they will need to vote to increase the debt limit again.

“We need to do everything we can never to affect the full faith and credit of the federal government … if we don’t pay our bills on time, that would be broaching, I think, very dangerous territory,” Mr. Dodaro said in an appearance before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Mr. Dodaro also said many intangible, unseen factors aren’t accounted for in the budget process, such as major disasters, catastrophes and potential economic downturns.

“Congress doesn’t have a game plan,” he said.

Sen. James Lankford, who discussed the debt ceiling with Mr. Dodaro at the committee hearing, said it used to be a useful tool.

“Now it’s a destabilizing tool that’s there in the arsenal and will continue to be an issue for us,” the Oklahoma Republican said.

Some conservative lawmakers have tried to use recent debt ceiling standoffs to extract spending cuts in agreements to lift the limit.

The spending “sequesters” and budget caps were the result of one such deal dating to 2011.

House Democrats have approved rules that automatically tie a suspension of the debt limit to passage of an annual budget resolution.

Some lawmakers have called for Congress to simply abolish the federal government’s borrowing limit entirely.

In his appearance Wednesday Mr. Dodaro told lawmakers it will take big answers to solve the growing debt, and he said it can’t be done by looking only for government waste and fraud.

“It’s going to require the Congress to look at all the entitlement programs, the revenue side of government … in order to get it on a more sustainable path,” he said.

Mr. Lankford said CBO has estimated that simply maintaining the country’s current public debt-to-GDP ratio of 78 percent — already near a historic high — would require lawmakers to generate roughly $400 billion per year, for the next 30 years, through a combination of tax increases and/or spending cuts.

“I think most of our colleagues don’t realize that we’ve already tipped over,” Mr. Lankford said. “We’re over the tipping point — we’re on the other side of it now.”

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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