Politics & Policy

Against the Boehner Plan

Nothing can justify adding $2.5 trillion to the government’s credit card.

House Speaker John Boehner has a plan that he touts as slashing about $900 billion in government spending — shy of his original claim, only two days earlier, that cuts would amount to $1.2 trillion. It’s nonsense, of course. In Washington, unlike the rest of the known universe, a “cut” is a reduction in the rate of increase. There are never real cuts. In reality, Speaker Boehner’s plan would add $9.1 trillion to the national debt. It is a “cut” only in the sense that the Obama Democrats have rigged matters so that, if nothing changes, autopilot would add $10 trillion.

You could call this a cruel joke on a country that is already well over $14 trillion in debt — a country in which every newly born child opens his eyes as a debtor, well over $30,000 in the hole. But that would be premature, because I haven’t gotten to the punchline yet. The reason Speaker Boehner and the Republican establishment have suddenly stirred themselves to “cut” spending is their determination to keep the Ponzi scheme going. The “cuts” — less than $100 billion of which are real (the rest are consigned to the illusory “out years,” meaning they’re the responsibility of some future Congress) — are to be made in exchange for giving the government the authority to borrow another $2.5 trillion.

This will last only a few months because, at a rate of about $46,000 per second, the United States sinks $4 billion deeper in debt every day. But the $2.5 trillion stands to get President Obama through reelection without having much more attention called to his starring role in our dire straits.

To Thomas Sowell, the Boehner plan seems commendable because it would not only “spare the country a major economic disruption” but also “spare the Republicans from losing the 2012 elections by being blamed — rightly or wrongly — for the disruptions.”

Rightly or wrongly. In a nutshell, that tells us everything we need to know about the state of Obama’s opposition. Even our best minds assume that a principled stand taken for the right reasons is a loser. Standing in the midst of what is already a catastrophe, even our best minds are content to pretend that the “disruption” is something from which we can be spared.

Ask any rational person: “When a government is so addicted to reckless spending that it has run up a crushing $14.3 trillion debt that it has no plan to pay back — when it is borrowing $180 million per hour because it has taken on more obligations than it could ever hope to satisfy — would it be better to extend that government’s credit line another $2.5 trillion so it can continue heedlessly along, or to take every available opportunity to force it to alter course dramatically?” There is only one right answer to that question.

Yet, try to fashion a policy position around that right answer, and what do you find? None less than the Dr. Sowell, as fine a mind as there is, warning that we can’t do the right thing because we’ll be wrongly blamed for the consequences. None less than the eminent Charles Krauthammer spouting the lamest of GOP talking points: Because Republicans only control one-half of one-third of the government, it is constitutionally problematic for House conservatives to continue demanding deeper spending cuts, to refuse to allow the nation to be driven trillions deeper in debt, and to treat an existential threat to our country as an existential threat to our country.

The only sure thing here is that there will be consequences. With due respect to Dr. Sowell and the Republican establishment that breathlessly cites him, there is no chance of sparing the country. The major economic disruption is already happening, and it stands to get far worse. Millions are unemployed, millions more are on public assistance, at unsustainable levels. The government has sharply devalued the dollar, and is gearing up for a third round of “quantitative easing” (more money created out of thin air). Like private-fund managers, our sovereign creditors, including China, Japan, and Great Britain, are showing increasingly less interest in buying our debt, so Treasury “borrows” (prints) mostly from the Fed — whose swelling $2.7 trillion balance sheet is reportedly leveraged 55-to-1. That’s twice what Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were leveraged when they failed. To entice real lenders, interest rates will have to be raised. That will add hundreds of billions to our debt service, wiping out the paltry “savings” the Boehner plan purports to achieve.

The pass we are at is not an avoidable disruption. It is a disaster that has already begun to unfold, reversal of which cries out for bold action. The Boehner plan, or any other scheme that balks at forthrightly dealing with our financial straits, merely makes it more likely that our nation cannot survive as we have known it. In the shorter term, the Boehner plan ensures that, when serious steps are finally taken, the metastasizing debt disease will be trillions worse, if not terminal.

Equally wrongheaded as imagining that an existential threat can be allowed to fester untreated is the insistence on seeing the threat in political rather than substantive terms.

There is no doubt about why we are in a crushing economic disruption. Yes, the proximate cause is President Obama’s unprecedented spending spree — his follow-through on the campaign promise to change America fundamentally. But today’s Republican establishment shoulders plenty of the blame. In the first six years of the George W. Bush administration — when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, with Speaker Boehner then among the GOP’s House leaders — the debt ceiling went from $5.95 trillion to $8.97 trillion. It had taken a decade (from 1987 to 1997) to increase the ceiling by the $3 trillion it took to get to $5.95 trillion. Republicans took only six years to do it again. Under President Bush, who has reportedly whipped GOP lawmakers to vote for the Boehner plan, the national debt rose by almost $5 trillion, to $10.6 trillion — i.e., it nearly doubled.

Bush’s profligacy pales by Obama standards. The current president is spending the nation into oblivion. He has taken less than three years to run up almost $4 trillion in debt.

The most transparent administration in history doesn’t write down the positions it argues in closed budget meetings with congressional leaders. Senate Democrats, moreover, have stopped submitting annual budgets, though federal law requires them. Transparently, this is done to avoid an embarrassing paper trail, documenting trillions in deficits, projected as far as the eye can see. But you can’t non–paper over a catastrophe. The government now spends so much more than it takes in that 40 cents of every expended federal dollar is borrowed.

This cannot continue. Every day it is not dealt with is a day that we punish future generations. “Deficit spending” is a euphemism. If we were honest, we’d call it “deferred confiscatory tax spending” — we blithely party like there’s no tomorrow, and when tomorrow comes, our children and grandchildren get stuck with the unfathomable bill.

None of this is mysterious. It is easily verifiable. You don’t need a degree in economics to understand it. In fact, it is well understood: The country’s grasp of our dire straits is one reason spendthrift Republicans were ousted from power in 2006 and 2008, and it is the reason why President Obama led his party to a crushing electoral defeat just nine months ago — one in which Democrats were swept from power in the House, now barely cling to control of the Senate, and were routed in state races across the country.

Americans did not suddenly fall in love with Republicans. They remain wary of the GOP, and — as we’re seeing — for good reason. The electoral revolt was strictly a center-right nation’s revulsion against governance by the hard Left. Republicans reaped the benefits because they were the only alternative, not because the public is convinced that they’ve learned anything from their stint in the wilderness.

The main lesson that should have been learned but hasn’t been is this: While every issue has political overtones and consequences, that does not make every issue political in its essence. The debt-ceiling controversy is not, as Republican leadership and its cheerleaders maintain, about politics. It is not a matter of, “If we don’t handle this correctly, if we push this too far, if Americans think we’re too extreme, President Obama will be reelected.” The debt ceiling is about the debt, not about how politicians can optimally position themselves to evade accountability for the inevitable consequences of the debt.

We’ve gotten lost in the weeds here. Speaker Boehner’s proposed cuts are, in the main, illusory. But making them marginally bigger or more real is beside the point. The issue here is whether anything can justify adding $2.5 trillion to the government’s credit card. The point of discussing cuts was to rationalize a debt-ceiling rise that would be no greater than the cuts. The premise of this dollar-for-dollar exchange notion is utterly flawed: If I am maxed out on my credit line, my agreement to reduce my spending by $1,000 may justify not cutting up my credit card. It would not justify increasing my credit line by $1,000.

Adding $1 trillion to this country’s debt ceiling, with another $1.5 trillion to follow in short order, would be recklessly irresponsible. Does that mean the debt ceiling shouldn’t be raised at all? I think so. I am open, though, to arguments that the Titanic can’t be turned around on a dime, that some schedule of modest monthly tweaks — upward and downward — may be justified while we roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of dramatically scaling back. One would have to be convinced that the hard work is actually underway, but I could see the sense in such a plan.

In any event, every equation has two sides. In the debt/spending equation, we are obsessed with the wrong one. The blunt truth is that, while some increase in the debt ceiling may be necessary, a $2.5 trillion increase would be inexcusable. And to grant a $2.5 trillion hike for no better reason than that this is what Obama needs to avoid having his suicide spending spree re-examined before Election Day would be truly insane.

The saddest thing about Thomas Sowell’s take on all this is not his suggestion that the political fallout of the debt controversy trumps the substance of the debt problem. It is his intimation that the truth can’t win. I doubt he would have much disagreement with the numbers I’ve laid out, or what they portend. What he seems to be saying, though, is that conservatives are either so incapable of making this case, or so overmatched by the left-wing media, that being right no longer matters. He seems to be saying that this argument cannot be won, even with the facts on our side.

I respectfully disagree. Our system is premised on the conviction that the right side can always win — that the strength of its arguments can turn the political tide and force even committed ideologues like Barack Obama to yield. And I believe the system works. If it didn’t, Guantanamo Bay would now be closed, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would now be in the seventh month of his civilian trial, and the president would be toasting Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the advent of single-payer health care.

Perhaps more dismaying than Dr. Sowell’s conclusion that conservatives can’t win is Dr. Krauthammer’s contention that they should stop trying. The tiresome claim that you can’t govern from one-half of one-third of the government is half-baked, and the suggestion that there is something constitutionally untoward in the opposition of House Republicans is ridiculous.

The House Republican faction opposed to granting a gargantuan increase in the debt ceiling is not governing. Governing is what the government as a whole does after accommodating all the factions in a system of divided powers. As Mark Levin points out, when Senate Democrats blocked Bush judicial nominees, they were in control of no part of the government. The rules gave the minority rights, and they made maximum use of them. There was political risk in being portrayed as obstructionist, creating a vacancy crisis on the bench, and depriving the country of well-qualified nominees. But Senate leftists calculated that, from their standpoint, the substance of the problem — having the bench increasingly dominated by conservative jurists who would stall the advance of their statist agenda — outweighed whatever political risk there was in hanging tough. It was important enough to them, so they fought to the bitter end. For the most part, they won — the vacancies they preserved are being filled by President Obama, creating life-tenured left-wing jurists who, for decades, will frustrate conservative efforts to roll back Obama’s advances.

There are two big differences between then and now. First, the Republicans actually control the House. Second, the debt problem they confront is not just by dimensions more significant than the ideology of judicial nominees; it is precisely the matter they were elected to address.

No, Republicans can’t govern from the House — if President Obama decided to pull out of Afghanistan tomorrow, there’s not much House Republicans could do about it except cavil. But just as the Constitution makes the president supreme in foreign affairs, it makes the Congress preeminent when it comes to federal borrowing and spending — and, in fact, reposes in the House of Representatives primary control over the raising of revenue. The Framers quite consciously structured things that way so that the spending of public dollars and incurring of public debt would be most closely overseen by the political officials most directly accountable to the people — the members of the House, who have to face the voters every two years.

The people, quite emphatically, want out-of-control spending dealt with. Their representatives have the power to effectuate that desire. The president can try to insist on borrowing and spending more, but the House gets to say no — and, on this matter, it is the president who should yield. That is not a constitutional problem; it is the Constitution in action.

The Republican establishment and the commentariat that claims it is time for conservatives to yield should stop posturing that their stance is about anything other than politics. They are worried that the media will blame Republicans if the debt limit is not raised, if spending is suddenly slashed, and if various constituencies in the dependency state are cut off cold-turkey from their federal goodies. They fear that President Obama — a class-A demagogue — will ride the ensuing chaos to reelection.

Those are not unrealistic fears. But they are secondary, and far from inevitable. It is entirely possible that the public already believes that spending has to be addressed now, that the crisis demonstrates like nothing else can how shockingly bloated the federal behemoth has become, and that President Obama — who is largely responsible for the mess — has to rein in his unceasing demands for more. It is entirely possible that people who don’t already believe these things can be convinced of them because they are true. It is entirely possible that, because conservatives in the House are doing what they were sent to Washington to do, the debt-ceiling crisis will be resolved on terms far more favorable to the American people — and future generations of the American people.

It may not work out that way, of course. But if it doesn’t, it will not be because of the politics. It will be because, lacking the will to confront what is killing us, we were already doomed.

—  Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.


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