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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Repeal the Debt Ceiling -- Review & Outlook, The Wall Street Journal

A mere eight weeks from the December budget deal, House Republicans on Tuesday bowed to the inevitable and allowed a vote on a "clean" debt-ceiling increase that Democrats promptly passed—no reform strings attached. Perhaps as a follow-up the GOP could repeal the debt ceiling altogether and finally end this periodic self-torture. 

Speaker John Boehner deserves some credit for bucking his caucus's earlier gambit to pair a debt-ceiling increase with a measure to repeal December's modest cut in military pension cost-of-living increases. So for the sake of forcing Democrats to vote against "veterans"—if Democrats also voted for a clean debt increase—Republicans were happy to repudiate the only real spending reform they obtained in the recent budget deal, and the main reason the party gave for easing the annual budget caps and sequester. 

The reform reduces cost-of-living adjustments for veterans under the age of 62 by one percentage point below inflation, a fix that would result in savings of about $6.3 billion over 10 years. Small though this is, the change counts as legitimate entitlement reform and a necessary start in controlling runaway military personnel costs.

Yet it caused an immediate political uproar that sent Republicans running for cover. Thus the GOP idea to cloak its military entitlement surrender under some debt-ceiling bravado. Mr. Boehner's tactical retreat ends that game and raises the debt limit past the fall election and into 2015.

What then? Some Republicans continue to see the debt ceiling as political leverage against President Obama. And once in a great while the debt ceiling has, with a willing President, imposed a modicum of spending discipline. That includes the 2011 sequester deal that lasted two years, and the Gramm-Rudman limits of 1985. 

But Mr. Obama vowed after 2011 never again to let Congress use the debt limit to impose spending oversight, and he and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have turned every borrowing-limit fight into another media-assisted episode of blame the GOP for risking a debt default. Republicans are never willing to shoot their debt-limit hostage, so the limit has now become Democratic leverage against Republicans. Why continue the pretense of fighting over a debt limit that doesn't limit debt?
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