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Now it's getting scary

Editorial

You would think that the federal government’s inability to avoid a partial government shutdown would be the epitome of incompetence. Unfortunately, another opportunity for lawmakers to demonstrate even greater incompetence is quickly approaching.

In fact, vampires, witches and such might not be the scariest thing out there on Halloween. Not by a long shot.

Sometime around the time of the Hunter’s Moon, the U.S. government will once again reach its limit on borrowing. It will need another in a series of continuing resolutions by Congress to meet the financial obligations already approved by Congress. If no action is taken to raise the cap, now set at slightly less than $16.7 trillion, the United States of America could default on the public debt.

The idea of a cap was to help lawmakers control spending. It hasn’t. Congress continues to pass this appropriations and that spending plan without any concern about paying it. Whatever buys the most votes for the party in charge gets funding, with about two dollars out of every five coming on the national “Visa” card. That’s not as bad as, say, Japan’s national government’s spending habits, but it’s getting up there. Japan, by the way, is looking at imposing a national sales tax to get out of this endless cycle.

Frankly — and this is a bipartisan observation — members of the U.S. Congress operate the country in a fashion that is fiscally idiotic. No business, no family, would continue to borrow money down at the neighborhood loan company to pay 40 percent of their living expenses. No, a family would cut back on elective expenses. A business would trim costs, or it would go out of business.

Congress and the federal government could live within their means, but it would be politically distasteful. They might actually have to say no to someone who votes or — even worse — makes campaign contributions.

Borrowing such a high percentage of the nation’s “living expenses” simply doesn’t embarrass lawmakers who do it, or presidents and members of the executive branch who spend it. They get inside the Washington Beltway and find a magic pot of gold that, if you just close your eyes, never empties, no matter how many coins you take out of it. They never look to see the taxpayers, businesses and those they’re borrowing from refill the pot. That would spoil the effect.

There is a reason this has developed in this manner. People, businesses and foreign government officials like you better when you give them something for nothing. And they’ll do everything they can to get you elected, figuring their little payback doesn’t really amount to all that much, not really.

At some point, the United States has to get its fiscal house in order. Congress has proven so far to be spectacularly incapable of accomplishing that (see: sequester). And it’s not going to get any better at it by Oct. 17.

That means the choices are raising the debt ceiling or going into default. Default would be more damaging to the nation. It’s bad enough that lawmakers are making more than 800,000 federal workers suffer needlessly over ideology. If they let the country go into the financial tank, the public should, en masse, recall every last one of them.

That’s not a bad idea. Bring them all home and send lawmakers to Washington who see borrowing as a means of paying bills only under extraordinary circumstances, not as a way of life.

The thing we forget is that all of Washington’s power rests in the voters’ hands. We should demand that our representatives and senators start talking to each other across the aisle, start looking out for the good of the nation instead of the party and learn how to say “no.” We should demand that they write and pass a budget, then live by it.

But until more voters take that stand and fewer voters stand at the polls just to make sure they get their “take,” this is what we’re stuck with — politicians so focused on self-preservation that they’re rubbing the numbers off the national credit card from overuse.

We can only hope that real change — change that is more than a pithy campaign slogan — will come and fiscal responsibility will take hold at some point. In the meantime, we’d settle for a burst of collective sanity on Capitol Hill.

The Albany Herald Editorial Board