The debt limit debate raging in Washington is the latest and most alarming sign to date that our political system is becoming dangerously broken.

The immediate problem is that, though Congress and the president agreed this spring to a plan that commits the government to spending more than it receives in taxes, they did not authorize the Treasury to borrow all the money required to meet that budget. As a result, the Treasury will run out of cash to pay its bills on Aug. 2 — unless Congress and the president do something.

The obvious “something” in this case is to vote to raise the national debt limit, although Congress also could drastically cut spending, or raise taxes or some combination of all three.

Votes to raise the national debt ceiling are always unpopular. Normally, however, congressional leaders take these unpopular votes because they understand that, once taxing and spending priorities have been enacted into law through the normal budgeting process, they have a duty to keep the spending promises they have made.

That’s why the Democrats all along have just wanted the House Republicans to raise the debt limit. They also see partisan advantage in such a vote: Even though Senate Democrats and the president would have to agree to it, the vote would be most damaging to the Republicans, who would then be “on the record” as having voted to increase the national debt, which they have promised to reduce.

Many House Republicans, however, believe so strongly that government spending must be cut that they feel justified in taking this opportunity to demand cuts in exchange for their vote to raise the debt limit. They also see partisan advantage: They must suppose that a government shutdown or even a national default would not harm their individual re-election chances, but that the inevitably damaging (and potentially catastrophic) economic fallout would hurt the president’s chances for re-election.

Whatever one thinks about the substantive positions the two parties have adopted here — and I’m persuaded by the Republican argument that we need to cut long-term entitlement spending far more than we need to raise taxes — creating an artificial crisis by flirting with national default is a stunningly irresponsible way to conduct the nation’s business.

In this fight, the Republicans have lost sight of the real value in adhering consistently to the formal procedures of governing. They can and should press their argument about limiting spending within the normal budget process; they can and should press their case for tax simplification through a regular legislative process.

How the Congress goes about making law is not quite as important as what laws it makes, but process is important. A good process makes possible deliberation and careful judgment; it leaves time for lawmakers and citizens to become informed about the measures under discussion.

A good process enables even the “losers” to feel that they have been heard and that some of their interests have been accommodated; in this way, good procedures build institutional trust.

What is most worrisome about Republican irresponsibility over the debt limit is that it is part of a larger pattern of procedural irresponsibility and slapdash lawmaking.

Last year, though the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, they failed to pass any budget at all. It is difficult to conceive of a more complete and inexcusable legislative failure than this: The one great responsibility of Congress is to allocate the nation’s resources wisely, and in 2010 the Democrats simply punted. A spending plan for the balance of the current fiscal year was agreed only after the Republicans took power in the House — and even then, agreement was reached only at the brink of a government shutdown.

Before that, one might mention the Democrats’ health care law, which in the end was forced through Congress without any regard for such procedural niceties as allowing anyone actually to read the bill and in defiance of the normal conventions of American politics, according to which such transformative legislation ought to have at least some bipartisan support.

Republicans, too, cut procedural corners when they were in power, and they have conspicuously abused the Senate confirmation process to seek narrow, short-term partisan advantage.

On both sides, we see an increasing willingness to damage the institution of Congress in order to achieve immediate gains. Unfortunately, the result is that Congress is becoming increasingly incapable of actually enacting the measures that will be necessary to spark the national renewal for which we all hope.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.


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