COLLINS: Mixing summer vacation and the debt debate

Keywords Forefront / Opinion

Gail CollinsJohn Boehner wants to restart the debt-limit debate. This is big news. Remember all the fun we had last time: threats, brinkmanship, wobbling financial markets, torpedoed Grand Bargain? You can certainly understand why he misses it.

The weather’s getting nice. Maybe this time we could do it outdoors.

“Let’s start now!” the House speaker said during a “fiscal summit” in Washington this month. This is an annual event in which honchos from all political persuasions get together and agree that the national debt is too big.

We are getting into election season, people. We are going to be hearing a lot about the national debt. (Which is very big. Really, at that fiscal summit meeting they were totally in agreement on the bigness.)

The partisan division—and the key to this entire election—is whether you believe that taxes are a critical tool for putting the budget in balance. If not, then we have nothing to talk about. Meet you in November.

Fortunately, Congress does not actually have to raise the debt limit again until after the elections. But Boehner insisted in a CNN interview that “there’s no reason to wait” because it’s just a matter of “both parties getting together.”

Maybe we could have a special bipartisan committee come up with a plan. Remember all the fun we had with Bowles-Simpson?

The names could definitely be better, though. Let’s call the next one Skippy.

“Everyone knows what the menu is. It’s just about having the guts to choose … what you’re going to have for dinner,” said Boehner, whose only personal preference is for meals entirely devoid of the dreaded Revenue vegetable.

In other debt-developments, Boehner met with President Barack Obama to discuss what will happen when the debt does hit its next limit. This may happen around Christmastime. During the get-together, the president reportedly suggested that for once Congress just raise the ceiling like a normal legislature. The speaker’s confidants reported that he was brave and strong and mildly profane about going for drama and cheap thrills.

In still other debt-related news, the Senate failed to agree on a budget plan despite multiple proposals the Republicans helpfully came up with to slash spending, curb entitlements and lower taxes. During a six-hour debate, the minority denounced the debt (which is very, very big), while the majority party members sat around sullenly. The high point may have come when Sen. Mike Lee of Utah announced that “this is the greatest civilization the world has ever known.” Nobody disagreed with him, although that was probably not the best time to make the argument.

The Democrats have not passed their own long-term budget plan for several years. This is either a terrible sign of the poisonous partisan state of things in Washington or an indication that when it comes to things that you really, really need in this world, a congressional budget ranks somewhere between a hurricane and another debt-limit debate.

To be fair, Congress did pass the Budget Control Act, which, absent any other debt-reduction agreement, will go into effect early next year and automatically slash the defense budget and domestic spending while eliminating the Bush-era tax cuts and that temporary payroll tax cut. This plan is affectionately known as “falling off the cliff.”

Meanwhile, and even more national-debt-related news, Mitt Romney made a major speech in which he laced into Obama for adding “almost as much debt as all the prior presidents combined.” This is a much-repeated factoid whose shock value is matched only by its extreme inaccuracy. As The Associated Press noted afterward, the public debt has gone up about 50 percent since the president took office while “under Ronald Reagan it tripled.”

It was a pretty dramatic speech, which compared the debt to a raging prairie fire. Romney said he would extinguish the blaze with his spending and tax-cutting plan, which the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimated would, at the very best, do nothing whatsoever.

Only 25 more weeks to go.•

• Collins is editor of The New York Times editorial page. Send comments on this column to

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