PBS’s Woodruff: Is Debt Limit ‘An Appropriate Tool’ To Restrain Government Spending?

PBS anchor Judy Woodruff asked a question on Monday’s NewsHour that perfectly captured the modern liberal mentality about government spending and debt.

During a taped interview with former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Woodruff asked:

 

"A number of prominent members of your party, the Republican Party, who are [sic] today arguing that the real problem the economy faces is the government and government debt, and a number of them are talking about using the debt ceiling as an instrument to keep government spending down. Is the debt limit an appropriate tool to use to do that?"
 

Does Charlie Daniels play a mean fiddle? The debt limit is the perfect instrument to keep government spending down, if only our leaders would use it that way. Imagine an America in which congressional appropriators kept an eye on the debt ceiling every time they made spending decisions for the coming fiscal year. In order to avoid racking up enough debt to reach the ceiling, they would need to limit spending to sustainable amounts.

But the sad reality is that our politicians don’t respect the debt limit as an actual limit on either debt or spending. Part of the reason is that it’s a weak mechanism. Secretary Paulson, in his response to Woodruff, alluded to the fact that the debt limit holds no power over Congress’s ability to spend or incur debt. All it does is potentially prevent the Treasury from meeting the obligations that Congress has already approved.

Therefore, the debt limit has become little more than a formality. Congress can raise it anytime it wants to, so there’s little point in even calling it a “limit” or “ceiling.” Liberals do not see it as a restraint on the exorbitant spending that they desire. The fact that a journalist can even ask whether the debt limit is an appropriate tool to restrict government spending shows that it is held in such low esteem.

Like Rodney Dangerfield and Aretha Franklin, the debt limit just needs respect. But it’s not going to get it from Judy Woodruff, and it’s not even going to get it from Secretary Paulson, who worked for an ostensibly conservative administration. Paulson’s response to Woodruff’s question showed just how entrenched the disdain for the debt ceiling has become:
 

"There will be brinksmanship. There will be politicking. But at the end of the day, Congress should raise the debt ceiling and Congress will raise the debt ceiling. They always do."

Here is a transcript of the complete question and answer:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's look ahead for just a minute. A number of prominent members of your party, the Republican Party, who are today arguing that the real problem the economy faces is the government and government debt, and a number of them are talking about using the debt ceiling as an instrument to keep government spending down. Is the debt limit an appropriate tool to use to do that?

HENRY PAULSON: I'm a former treasury secretary, and every treasury secretary hates the fact that we need to go back to Congress and ask them to raise the debt ceiling so we can meet the obligations that they have already approved. So we all hate that. That's a flaw in the system. Number one. Number two, the point I continually make is that we won't default on our debt. There will be brinksmanship. There will be politicking. But at the end of the day, Congress should raise the debt ceiling and Congress will raise the debt ceiling. They always do.

Paul Bremmer
Paul Bremmer is a Media Research Center News Analysis Division intern.