In our fifth year of unprecedented federal spending, now up to $3.6 trillion annually, with a $1.5 trillion revenue deficit, and a national debt in excess of $14 trillion, Congress must now determine whether to raise what has been called "the debt ceiling" of the federal government.

Now is the time, it is said, because the deadline is approaching on the existing "ceiling." Democrats argue that $1.9 trillion must be added to that limit in order to maintain the credit of the United States. In fact, they maintain that there should be no debate over whether to do what obviously must be done.

Let us put this issue in perspective with some history and analysis. The U.S. Constitution's adoption in 1789 made it possible for the federal government to pledge its "full faith and credit" (Article IV, Section 1) for the Revolutionary War debts run up by previous Congresses and existing state governments. At one stroke, the fledgling republic raised itself above the ranks of national ne'er-do-wells and became solvent.

Indeed, taking on the debt actually attached our nation's creditors to the survival of the United States, the source of their income stream. But credit worthiness is a lot different from credit recklessness, the latter of which is unfortunately the case for the federal government today.

If is fair to point out that generations of congresses and presidents have contributed to our massive national debt, but it is equally fair to note the steep rise since the election of a Democratic Congress in 2006 and a Democratic president in 2008. It is disingenuous for Democrats to talk the talk of fiscal responsibility after half a decade of reckless spending.

Surely we must pay our debts? If only it was that simple. Take an analogy to a household. The parents are paying off a mortgage and an automobile loan, and regularly use credit cards. Maybe they have a specific limit, or maybe they don't. But what they don't do is pretend that running up more debt is the key to bringing their spending under control, not to mention paying off their debt.

Assuming this household keeps its debt within manageable limits, its creditors would prefer that they stay solvent so that they can pay down those debts rather than go bankrupt. Those creditors would not be reassured if the borrowers wrote them a letter explaining that, since they can't pay down their debts, they have decided to "raise their debt ceiling."

Now this is what Democrats are currently calling fiscal prudence as far as the federal government's debts are concerned. Although it is regarded as somehow an ironclad promise that federal debts will be paid, this didn't dissuade Standard and Poor's last week from downgrading the federal government's "credit rating."

This leads to the conclusion that always raising the debt "ceiling" does not demonstrate fiscal responsibility. To the contrary, a decision accompanied by a massive cut in federal spending so as not to fuel the raging debt fire, would be a display of real fiscal prudence.

The best proof that the federal "ceiling" is not the mark of sound budgetary practice is the fact that it has been increased as a matter of course for years. Again, imagine if a household did that. As Dr. Phil would say, "How's that working out for you?" For both households and national governments, increasing debt with no evidence of an ability, or even a willingness, to pay sends all the wrong signals to creditors.

Our debt problem is complicated by the fact that we owe money not only "to ourselves" (as liberals for years have tried to reassure us) but to foreigners, particularly Chinese communists. Granted, all those creditors have a stake in our continued existence, but there are limits, especially as China seeks to replace us as the leading power in the world.

In 2006, when Barack Obama was a U.S. senator from Illinois, he voted against raising the debt ceiling, citing the fiscal irresponsibility of the Bush administration. He had a point, although $200 billion annual deficits for national safety are a far cry from $1.5 trillion yearly shortfalls to "transform" this country into a European-style welfare state.

As an old friend has persuasively argued, a willingness to trade a new ceiling for a major down payment on the current debt would show that the federal government has at last imposed a real limit and not just a moving target.

Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of " Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause"  (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at