Onto the Debt Ceiling

by Veronique de Rugy

While the outcome of the CR fight remains unclear, most lawmakers on both sides seem opposed to a government shutdown, so I assume a solution will be found. Unfortunately, I also suppose that whatever agreement Congress reaches won’t get us any closer to finding a long-term solution to our fiscal problems. In fact, the deal will likely mean more spending all around. As the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner explained on Wednesday in his NRO column “Three Defunding Myths,” the House-passed CR  is even more expensive than current law. He writes:

House Republicans voted this week to fund the government through December. In fact, the CR that Republicans passed would actually increase federal spending by roughly $21 billion over current law. They did include a provision, or rider, prohibiting the use of any money for implementation of Obamacare, but that would have no effect on the rest of government.

This is consistent with the fact that this year GOP lawmakers have largely dropped the ball on the fight to federal spending. In fact, many of them have clearly shifted their focus from cutting spending to restoring defense spending cuts. The House-passed Ryan budget, for example, would exempt defense entirely from the sequestration cuts (it claims to find “savings” elsewhere, i.e., in nondefense spending). And in the past weeks, we have witnessed a renewed effort from some congressional Republicans (led by Senators Inhofe and McCain) to repeal the defense sequester in exchange for authorizing a war in Syria, as apparently any dollar spent on defense automatically makes Americans safer.

With the nation headed toward fiscal disaster, Republicans can only regain some fiscal credibility if they show they are serious about cutting spending, and the next opportunity is the debt-limit debate. Regrettably, House Republicans’ just-released proposal for negotiating an increase in the debt limit shows no real sign they’re serious about addressing the nation’s fiscal mess. For one thing, many of the items in the proposal have nothing to do with spending levels or debt, and the list itself seems like a hodgepodge of ideas thrown together at the last minute. To be sure, the proposal does include some fine policy ideas on the spending front, such as delaying Obamacare for a year and means-testing Medicare, alongside a short list of other health-care savings. However, all that together is far from enough to put us back on a sustainable fiscal path. Moreover, there appears to be a significant risk that most of any actual “savings” would simply be used to get rid of the defense cuts and possibly the sequester in other areas, too.

Federal default has to be avoided, but Republicans should use the debt-ceiling debate as an opportunity to educate the public about the country’s debt problem and explain what it would take for them to fix it. Their half-baked proposal doesn’t do that, nor will it give them much credibility on the fiscal-responsibility front. They should propose a plan that offers real entitlement reforms and preserves the spending cuts that were implemented as part of the last debt-ceiling deal.

With that in mind, here are the most basic requirements for Republicans in the upcoming debt-limit negotiations:

  1. Maintain the full sequester: Republicans shouldn’t offer undoing the cuts to gain leverage with White House.
  2. Make the case for real and comprehensive entitlement reform, because this is the key driver of future debt. Any reforms must begin immediately (even if near-term reforms are modest), not a decade from now.
  3. The savings from proposed entitlement reforms must be applied to slowing growth of entitlement spending and shouldn’t be used to get out of defense sequester cuts.

Will the Republicans get everything they want? Probably not. That shouldn’t stop them from trying. Writing about Senator Ted Cruz’s filibuster and his attempt to bring some attention to the huge flaws in Obamacare, Chris Edwards notes, “We will see where this goes, but it takes entrepreneurs to change the dynamics of a situation. They may succeed or fail at their particular goal, but they often change the path of events and open new possibilities.” He is right: A good principled debate is never a waste.

 

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