America's elected leaders have spent the past few weeks trashing their public standing on Main Street and abroad, and they don't seem to care.
President Barack Obama's approval rating is heading lower, but he won't be running for office again. The approval rating for Congress already is about as low as it can go. So what? The majority of lawmakers hold safe seats in gerrymandered districts. The president nor the lawmakers at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue may be hearing lots of noise from the American public, but given their collective job security, the folks we've sent to Washington aren't feeling real heat.
Americans are disgusted with the lack of leadership - from two parties in two branches of government - that's now on display: the impetuous brinkmanship, the unwillingness to negotiate, the arrogant sense that, Just as soon as you surrender, we can talk about our disagreements. This is no way to do business. Especially the people's business.
The president and Congress need a bigger incentive to salvage something substantial out of the mess they've made. The scorn of the electorate isn't doing it. This just might: another, more painful budget sequester. An amplification of the mandatory reductions in spending growth that are now in force. Call it Sequester 2.0.
Our idea would work like this: First, Congress has to head off a federal default by agreeing to raise the debt ceiling, the upper limit on federal borrowing. Failing to do so within the Treasury Department's deadline of Oct. 17 - a mere week from Thursday - would be reckless. It makes no sense to take a chance on killing off the economic recovery with a self-inflicted wound of such uncertain consequences.
But one more rise in the ceiling, followed by a signing ceremony and a nice lunch, would only perpetuate the growth of a national debt that has swollen to almost $17 trillion.
What's needed is certainty of consequences if Washington solves its short-term problem, the debt ceiling, but not the long-term problem, runaway borrowing that condemns future generations to pay for today's spending. Plus interest. For too long, the president and Congress have evaded any real consequences of failing to reduce the debt's fat share of our gross national product.
Enough of that. Any agreement now to extend the debt limit has to include a fixed timetable for action on curtailing total debt - and a measured consequence for inaction. If no progress is made in putting America on a sound fiscal footing, then something has to happen that isn't irresponsible, as a debt default would be, but that hurts enough so that no responsible lawmaker would want it.
We were fans of the first sequester because it did indeed produce a consequence for group failure to slash our annual budget deficits and their enduring progeny, our national debt. Congress and the president had a deadline to come together and make a debt deal that would begin to secure America's long-term future. Time and again, they failed to reach an agreement before their self-imposed deadline of March 1.
By their action, or rather their inaction, Congress and the White House triggered their own self-imposed consequence, the sequester they had passed into law. In other words, they were willing to live with the immediate, automatic cuts to the growth of defense spending, which pained Republicans, and to the growth of social spending, which pained Democrats.
Here's how it worked: In 2011, Congress authorized an increase in the debt ceiling in exchange for $2.4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade. The total included $1.2 trillion in specific spending cuts, and another $1.2 trillion to be identified later in 2011 by a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers known as the "Supercommittee." When the Supercommittee failed to make a deal, across-the-board cuts in the growth of spending occurred.
But that consequence - call it Sequester 1.0 - hasn't proved painful enough to prompt Democrats and Republicans to lay down their arms and end these constant budget battles.
We'd like to see that same approach again: Raise the debt ceiling to avoid a default, but force a debt fix within, say, three months or face a much more dramatic haircut to each party's sacred cows. But a Sequester 2.0 would have to really hurt: Don't again reduce the growth of spending. This time, reduce spending.
That is, raise the ante in order to force action on reducing accumulated debt that does confront the America as we know it with an existential threat. Forcing both parties, both branches of government, to put more chips on the table would be a responsible way to get results from a president and Congress that already are gambling with America's future.