Voting Present on the Debt Limit

by Ramesh Ponnuru

I have high regard for Keith Hennessey, and make sure to read every post on his economic-policy blog. So normally I would cheer any sign that his influence is rising, as when Reihan Salam and Jennifer Rubin endorse his proposed strategy for Republicans in the debt-ceiling debate. Moreover, I agree with Hennessey’s general take on the issue: The debt ceiling ought to rise, but its increase should be paired with spending cuts.

I don’t, however, have much confidence in the strategy he has outlined for getting there. He would have Boehner and McConnell offer to pass a large increase in the debt ceiling in return for serious entitlement reform, or allow votes on a series of smaller debt-level increases for which Democrats would have to supply the majority of votes. Hennessey thinks the unwillingness of congressional Democrats to cast multiple votes to raise the debt ceiling will give Republicans leverage for spending cuts.

I see three problems here. First, a significant number of Republicans would have to vote for multiple debt-ceiling increases too. Second, Hennessey may be overestimating how uncomfortable congressional Democrats are with raising the debt limit in the age of Obama. Third, wouldn’t it look too cute to enable multiple debt-ceiling increases but not formally endorse them? If the reason Republicans would be withholding their votes is that they don’t think voters, or at least their voters, want the debt ceiling increased without spending cuts, then wouldn’t this maneuver leave them disappointed too? And wouldn’t it look to others–to people who think the debt ceiling should be increased–like an admission by Republicans that they agree but won’t do what they understand is necessary? Wouldn’t it look like Republicans are more interested in carping from the sidelines than influencing how the country is governed?