This week, the House Republican conference met to discuss what their priority will be in connection with any vote to increase the debt ceiling. This is timely since the current suspension of the debt limit expires tomorrow. According to reports of the Republican House caucus meeting, “Members came away with the impression that the GOP conference wants entitlement cuts to be demanded, along with any possible links to a pro-growth overhaul of the tax code.”

These lawmakers’ instincts on prioritizing entitlement reform are spot on.

Debt Still the Problem

Despite some foolish notion that deficit spending “is pretty much solved” because the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports that the red ink for 2013 is projected at $642 billion rather than $845 billion, the nation’s financial footing is still on a “fiscal collision course.”

Think of our country’s debt problem as a patient with life-threatening cancer. The patient has just learned that the disease’s progression has slowed a tiny bit. It would be utterly foolish to regard the cancer as any less serious and it would be the height of folly to put off the unpleasant prescribed surgery.

In this case, the nation’s life-saving treatment is entitlement reform.

Avoid Distractions and Unify

Speaker John Boehner (R–OH) is looking for caucus unity as they move into the debt limit fight. He found caucus unity in January and announced their commitment to produce “a plan that will in fact balance the budget over the next 10 years.” He can find support for that message and the only real threat to unity would be to jettison that blueprint. Even recently, House Republican Steering Committee chair Steve Scalise (R–LA) surveyed members and found unity to “tie the debt ceiling to the actual reforms that it will take to get the budget to balance in ten years.”

Unity and stiff spines are required to avoid distractions—no matter how worthy—and fix the problem at hand. Revenue neutral tax reform and approval of the Keystone pipeline are important policy changes for Congress to pursue; but a vote to increase the debt ceiling signifies a spending problem. It is just as serious as ever and Congress should fix it through spending cuts, particularly entitlements, and not through tax hikes.