Maxed out

If Bush is so good at cutting deficits, why do we need to raise the debt limit again?

Published March 3, 2006 4:56PM (EST)

For all of the president's talk about cutting the deficit in half by 2009, we sure seem to be headed in the wrong direction. Before the Senate leaves for spring break later this month, it will have to vote to increase the nation's $8.18 trillion debt limit -- or risk shutting down the government entirely.

To be fair, the deficit and the debt are two different things. Think of them in family-finance terms. The deficit is the amount you dump on your credit card each month when your income doesn't quite match your outgo. The debt is the total balance that you owe as a result. And it all works just fine -- if a little expensively -- until you reach your credit limit and can't dump the difference on your card anymore. That's what's happening now in Washington; the government's credit limit -- its "debt limit" -- is maxed out.

And if you've ever felt a little shame when calling your credit card company to beg for a larger credit line, then you've got a pretty good sense of how Senate Republicans are feeling just now. Going back for more is a tacit admission that the president's fiscal policies aren't working so well -- you can't deliver massive tax cuts, finance a costly war of choice and cut the deficit at the same time -- and the GOP wants to make it as quietly as it possibly can.

Although the government will run out of money around March 20, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist hasn't quite gotten around to scheduling a debate on raising the debt limit just yet. Watch for him to ram it through quietly and quickly just before the Senate leaves town in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, the Democrats will argue that the increase in the debt limit is a subject worthy of long and agonizing televised debate. "A substantial increase in the debt burden on American taxpayers is too important a matter to be rushed through the Senate without a complete debate on the current course of U.S. fiscal policy," Sens. Harry Reid, Max Baucus and Kent Conrad wrote in a letter to Frist Thursday.

And what about Bush's promises of deficit reduction? The Treasury Department reported last fall that the deficit for 2005 was $319 billion, down about $94 billion from the record deficit of 2004. But as Congress Daily reports, another Treasury Department report released in December put the 2005 deficit at $760 billion. The difference? The second report calculates the deficit on an "accrual" basis -- counting the benefits the government owes to veterans and government employees, just like a private company would.

If you're thinking this is all a little hard to take from an administration that preaches "personal responsibility" and sends its vice president out to tell people they should save more money, well, you said it, not us. But if you're thinking that you're going to start paying down your debts to set a good example for your elected officials, we need to warn you that you'd better think twice. When a Rhode Island couple made the decision to pay off their JCPenney platinum MasterCard recently, they say they were told that the $6,522 payment they sent in couldn't be processed immediately because the Department of Homeland Security would have to be notified of such suspicious activity first.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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