Spending cuts can ease debt President Barack Obama and House Republicans have been jousting over raising the nation's $16.4 trillion debt limit.
Countering the original House GOP position demanding spending cuts as part of the deal, the president said he would refuse to debate spending cuts "with a gun at the head of the American people" -- a poor choice of words, given the Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown, Conn.
The Republican-controlled House backed off a bit, voting last week to suspend the debt ceiling until May 19. The Senate is to vote on the measure sometime this week.
The extension should give Congress time to approve a budget and engage in meaningful negotiations on debt relief.
Even when House Republicans were insisting on spending cuts before agreeing to a higher debt limit, they had the stronger argument.
Federal deficits have topped $1 trillion for all four years of Obama's term. When the Bowles-Simpson commission, appointed and charged by Obama himself, came out with its deficit-reduction plan in 2010, the president went AWOL, refusing to back the plan or ask Congress to vote on it.
The sum total of the president's contributions to deficit reduction so far has been to tax the rich, despite the fact that the nation's top 10 percent, never mind the much-maligned top 1 percent, does not have the assets to eliminate the nation's monstrous $16.4 trillion federal debt.
No doubt Obama and his allies believe the president is being reasonable.
"The issue here is whether or not America pays its bills," Obama said during the final press conference of his first term. "We are not a deadbeat nation."
Not yet, but we are a spendthrift nation.
With the Congressional Budget Office pegging the federal debt at 73 percent of total U.S. economic output as of the end of 2012, our ability to pay our bills is coming dramatically close to unsustainable.
Consider a Lancaster County family at the median income of $55,000 per year with credit card debts totaling $40,150, and you get a sense of the mess we're in. And the mess we will leave future generations is even worse.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, under current policies, the cost of major federal health care programs will expand from more than 5 percent of gross domestic product today to almost 10 percent in 2037.
Add in Social Security spending and the rising cost of health care, and federal entitlements' share of GDP "will rise from more than 10 percent of GDP today to almost 16 percent of GDP 25 years from now."
To put that in perspective: Total federal spending, minus interest payments, has averaged about 18.5 percent of GDP over the past 40 years.
If now is not the time to insist on spending cuts, and to use the hammer of the debt limit to get the attention of an administration that refuses to deal with the issue, when will that time come?
U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts, who represents most of Lancaster County in the House, made a reasonable argument in his recent newsletter to constituents.
"Continuing to raise the debt limit without a plan to control spending will inevitably lead to an economic crisis," he said. "The longer we wait, the harder and more painful balancing our budget will be. We could keep kicking the can down the road until the president is out of office, but that can is eventually going to get too heavy to kick anymore."
Given the size of our debt, Pitts and his fellow Republicans have the better of this argument: The time for inaction on the national debt has passed. The time to act is now.
It's almost too bad Republicans are willing to give three months, but it's the best deal our children and grandchildren are going to get.
Federal deficits have topped $1 trillion for all four years of Obama's term.