Politics & Policy

Hitting the Ceiling

Republicans debate whether and how to raise the federal debt limit.

What happens when you get close to the limit on your credit card? Well, if you’re the United States Congress, you can just vote to increase that limit and carry on spending — and Congress has done just that five times in the past four years.

Not this time. Not so fast, anyway. President Obama, who on Thursday formally requested congressional approval to increase the national debt limit — currently set at $14.3 trillion — will have to persuade a Tea Party–infused 112th Congress, and soon. The limit is expected to be reached sometime this spring.

Just as Republicans were able to leverage a January 1 deadline to strike a deal with the White House on tax rates during the lame-duck session, they are now hoping to use the urgency of this situation to force Democrats to swallow a hefty dose of fiscal restraint.

There are, of course, a number of leading conservatives who are dead set against raising the debt ceiling under any circumstances, even if it means forcing a government shutdown similar to the one orchestrated by former speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995, or risking default. Familiar faces such as those of Reps. Michelle Bachmann (R., Minn.) and Ron Paul (R., Texas) have been joined by a chorus of freshman members, many of whom explicitly campaigned against raising the debt limit.

However, most Republicans, bowing to reality (and remembering the blow that the GOP’s reputation suffered as a result of the 1995 shutdown), have decided on a more pragmatic approach. A number of ideas have been put forward as to what a compromise might look like. Many of them center on efforts to rein in government spending (though none have been specific about what would be cut).

“You can’t not raise the debt ceiling,” said House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) during a forum at the National Press Club on Thursday. “But we want to have real fiscal controls, real spending cuts to go with this.” Perennial fiscal hawk Rep. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) agreed, telling National Review Online that any debt increase “has to be in tandem with spending cuts.” Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), who has characteristically threatened to filibuster the vote, said he wanted $300 billion in agreed cuts before he’d back down. And the new House speaker, John Boehner (R., Ohio), said in a statement Thursday that “the American people will not stand for” an increase to the debt limit “unless it is accompanied by meaningful action . . . to cut spending.”

But some GOP lawmakers would like to see more than just spending cuts. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said on Meet the Press that Social Security reform should also be on the table. Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) has suggested that comprehensive tax reform be included as part of a deal.

One idea that has started to catch on is a proposal by Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) to tie raising the debt ceiling to a balanced-budget amendment. Cornyn introduced such a bill in December, and it was unanimously approved by the Republican Conference.

Club for Growth spokesman Mike Connolly said Republicans should aim big. In return for raising the debt ceiling, the GOP should demand “pretty dramatic reforms,” not only in terms of spending but also in terms of comprehensive structural changes to the budget process, entitlements, and the tax code. “We need to go farther than just a few symbolic cuts,” he told National Review Online. “Republicans need to show the game has changed and a new sheriff is in town.” FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe agreed, saying any arrangement should include significant and immediate spending cuts, as well as longer-term structural reforms such as a balanced-budget amendment and perhaps a few elements of Ryan’s “Roadmap for America.”

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said he liked all of the policy proposals that have been put forward, but argued that Republicans’ primary goal should be “winning the argument” on debt and spending. In other words, they should make the case to the public, and independent voters in particular, that Democratic policies are to blame for the country’s fiscal woes. “You take as much as you can get, and you can get more if you frame the argument correctly,” he told National Review Online. One item Norquist said he would like to see attached to the debt vote was a bill introduced by Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) that would force state and local governments to be more transparent in regard to their public-pension liabilities (which are pushing those governments toward default).

Democrats have been doing their best to “frame the argument” by painting Republicans as economic extremists. Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, accused Republicans of “playing chicken” with the debt ceiling on ABC’s This Week. Failure to raise the limit, he said, would be “totally unprecedented” and have “catastrophic” consequences. “This is not a game,” Goolsbee said. “If we get to the point where you’ve damaged the full faith and credit of the United States, that would be the first default in history caused purely by insanity.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently warned of “extremist elements in the GOP” plotting to shut down the government.

A senior GOP Senate aide told National Review Online that Democrats can complain all they want; they are still going to lose the argument. Republicans believe that given the mood of the country, many Democrats won’t have the stomach to take a hard line against fiscal discipline. “Our strategy is to force them to say no to spending cuts,” the aide said.

Let the games begin.

Andrew Stiles is a 2010 Franklin Fellow.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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