Politics & Policy

Debt Burdens

For anyone who expected transformational changes from the fight over the debt-limit increase, Speaker John Boehner’s plan to raise the limit is a disappointment. But as a way to begin to control Washington’s spending, and to avoid the potential economic and political costs should the debt fight go wrong, it is a worthy framework.

The Boehner plan increases the debt limit by $1 trillion or a little less immediately. At the same time, it would cap discretionary spending so that the government has to spend roughly $1 trillion less over the next ten years than it currently plans to. These caps would be enforceable law, valid unless both houses of Congress and the president decided to break them. In the second phase of the plan, a bipartisan congressional committee would recommend roughly $1.8 trillion in additional deficit reduction. Congress would consider the recommendations under an expedited procedure, and if they passed, President Obama could ask for another debt increase of $1.5 trillion to get beyond the 2012 election.

The advantages of the plan are that it does not raise taxes, it imposes some spending restraint, and it reduces the risk of disruption to credit markets. It could get through the Senate and, if it did, President Obama would almost certainly have to sign it — which would be a political defeat, given that the president first sought an unconditional increase in the debt limit, subsequently sought tax increases, and is now implying that he will not sign a short-term deal.

But the Boehner plan obviously has downsides, too, which its proponents would be wise to acknowledge and, where possible, remedy. The initial savings are tiny — and will likely remain so even as Boehner scrambles to revise the plan to make it more palatable to conservatives. (The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the real cut from this fiscal year to the next would be a pathetic $1 billion.) The big numbers accrue only over time, and who knows what Congress is going to look like five, eight, or ten years from now? While the first tranche of the plan features, in theory, a one-for-one match of spending cuts to increased borrowing authority, no one can say what would happen with the second tranche. The committee the plan sets up smacks of typical Washington buck-passing, and it could become a vehicle for a tax increase along the lines of what the Gang of Six proposed. The plan might not impress the rating agencies enough to prevent a downgrade to the federal government’s credit.

Thus we understand the skepticism of House conservatives. They should by all means work to improve the plan. In particular, they should try to make the up-front cuts larger and the total savings larger. If they can’t strip out the committee the plan establishes, they should push to stipulate that it can recommend spending cuts but not tax increases, and insist that Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell commit to naming the likes of Jeb Hensarling, Paul Ryan, and Jon Kyl — anti-taxers and spending hawks all — to the committee. Boehner, for his part, should be open to these changes. He wants a plan that can pass the Senate and believes his qualifies. But the Democratic Senate is bound to make some changes. So let Boehner concentrate on getting a majority in the House first and then go to the Senate with a stronger negotiating position.

What House conservatives should not do, we think, is simply work to blow up the plan in the hope that wondrous things will happen when it explodes. Some of our friends in the House seem to think that if they push the stalemate far enough that the government hits the debt limit, victory will fall into their laps and scores of Democrats will go along with a constitutional amendment that requires balanced budgets and limits spending. It is more likely that, with Republicans having openly pushed for blowing the deadline, they will be blamed for any negative consequences. Senate Republicans may cut and run even before that point, isolating the House and making it more likely that a rump of House Republicans will work along with Democrats to pass something worse than the Boehner plan. The least likely outcome is that liberals will sign a suicide note by acquiescing, in the next week or two, to the enshrinement of conservative fiscal goals in the Constitution.

The Boehner plan, even in modified form, is surely not the sort of compromise House freshmen envisioned passing when they came to Washington. But they have already made a difference. Without them, a clean debt-limit increase or a Gang of Six deal would have likely passed Congress. Without them, there would be no spending cuts at all. But a plan that does everything we conservatives think necessary to secure our fiscal future cannot be enacted in today’s Washington. The election of Barack Obama in 2008, and the Democratic retention of the Senate in 2010, had consequences that continue to this day.

The 2012 elections will have consequences, too. If Obama is reelected, the further socialization of American medicine will proceed and the modernization of entitlements will not. Taxes will very likely go up. If Republicans want to return the federal government to its proper constitutional dimensions, the legislation they advance now must do as much good as possible while also laying the groundwork for the election of conservatives, and the defeat of liberals, in 16 months. The easier they make it for Obama to blame Republicans for hurting the economy with debt-limit brinkmanship, the more they will undermine that goal.

What Republicans should do, then, is simple, albeit difficult. Cut spending. Hold the line on taxes. Avoid a fiscal crisis. Defeat Obama and Senate Democrats. And with a new mandate and additional allies, set to work bringing lasting change to Washington.


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