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Stop kicking the debt ceiling can!

  • By Paul R. La Monica,
  • CNNMoney.com
  • – 10/17/2013
  • Economic Insight
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The United States still has the skills to pay the bills. Whew.

The debt ceiling has been raised ... but only until February 7. So unless Republicans and Democrats suddenly grow up, the American people may have to brace for another dance with default sometime in 2014.

Or will we? Is it remotely possible that Congress actually learned a lesson? I hope so. To quote Mary J. Blige, we need no more drama.

And guess what? Maybe lawmakers will stop kicking the debt ceiling can down the road so we can avoid another scare like this one.

Dr. Robert Shapiro, chairman of Sonecon, an economic advisory firm in Washington, is guardedly optimistic that we won't go down the debt ceiling rabbit hole again.

Shapiro, who served as Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs in President Clinton's administration, said that it's possible the government could shut down in January. But he thinks that lawmakers will not tie decisions about re-opening the government to raising the debt ceiling next time around.

"I cannot imagine that anyone wants to go through this again," he said. "The damage from an actual default would have been so enormous -- on the scale of 2008 and 2009."

Even though the stock and bond markets were relatively calm throughout October, Shapiro said that politicians have to realize that the rest of the world is growing tired with the tomfoolery in Washington.

The U.S. won't be able to remain the preeminent global economic powerhouse if our nation's least and dimmest (I should trademark that) continue to act more like a banana republic -- and I'm not referring to the clothing chain owned by the Gap (GPS).

"It's remarkable to be in a position where we're relieved that the United States did not default on its debt. This was always more about politics than economics," he said. "The world has to be wondering if we're going to be dealing with this issue every six months for the next 10 years."

Jerry Webman, chief economist with OppenheimerFunds, agrees. He said that Congress must recognize that it can't risk missing payments to bondholders, Social Security recipients and others just to score partisan points.

"It makes sense to take the discussion of the budget away from the debt ceiling. That would be good policy as long as Congress sticks with it," he said.

That doesn't mean that Congress can't have a reasonable conversation about taxes, entitlement spending and other big picture budget issues. They are incredibly important.

And no matter which party you belong to, I think all Americans can agree that the U.S. needs to do something soon to address longer-term fiscal challenges. But that needs to be removed from the debt ceiling equation.

"The debate needs to be about how much the government should spend, what it should spend it on and how it should raise the money to do that," Webman said. "The debt ceiling is a historical artifact that should not be politicized."

Compromise may be a dirty word in Washington. But Congress and the president must pull an Avis and try harder to work together.

Webman said that the most significant cause for concern is that lawmakers continue to do nothing. Extend and pretend nothing's wrong. Delay and pray. (Not sure why I was suddenly possessed by New York Knicks legend and rhyming master Walt "Clyde" Frazier there.)

"The biggest negative for investors and the economy is continued uncertainty. Businesses would rather have clarity about policies they may not like because you can at least deal with that," he said.

Exactly. There's got to be a lot of stubbed toes on Capitol Hill from all that can kicking. So here's hoping that Congress doesn't repeat the mistake of the past few weeks.

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