Politics & Policy

Leadership by Default

On election night last year, when it had become clear that Republicans would take over the House of Representatives, John Boehner noted that in contemporary American politics the president takes the lead. Republicans, he would say on other occasions, control only one-half of one-third of the government.

It is the only part of the government, however, that has shown any leadership in this year’s budget debates. House Republicans passed a budget that cuts spending, including entitlement spending, even though many Republican voters objected. President Obama, meanwhile, first proposed a budget that even Senate Democrats rejected as unserious, and then gave a speech outlining a second budget but failed to follow up by submitting an actual proposal. Only Senate Democrats performed worse; they have not enacted a budget in more than two years.

Obama is at it again, saying fine things about cutting trillions of spending without making any public disclosure of what specifically he would cut. At the same time he is portraying the Republicans as obstructionists who are threatening Grandma’s Social Security checks. In light of all this, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is preparing for the worst with a “contingency plan” if the situation remains deadlocked.

The Kentucky Republican has proposed a convoluted scheme whereby the debt ceiling would increase and the president would have to submit specific spending cuts.  Congress would have the power to keep the debt ceiling from rising if it amassed a two-thirds majority that found those cuts inadequate. The goal is to keep the government from hitting the debt ceiling, defaulting on its bonds, or interrupting popular programs on which millions of people rely, while also holding the president accountable for his fiscal choices.

That’s a highly optimistic gloss on it, anyway. In reality, everyone would consider the Republicans partly responsible for an increase in the debt ceiling if they adopt this course; everyone would consider them to have lost their nerve for a fight; everyone would expect the spending cuts not to happen; and everyone would be right. Which is why it does not appear that House Republicans, or even all Senate Republicans, are going to follow this course.

The alternative is for Republicans to take the initiative. They should continue trying to reach a deal with the president. But they should also pass legislation through the House that raises the debt ceiling, cuts spending, and implements reforms. For good measure, they should clarify that if the government ever does run up against the debt limit, bondholders and Social Security recipients will be the first to be paid off.

That move would clarify that House Republicans are not threatening a default and not standing in the way of anyone’s Social Security check, and serve the ball back to the Democrats. Legislation wholly crafted by Republicans is unlikely to be enacted. But its existence should give the Republicans more leverage in any talks — and a defense against Democratic attempts to blame them should the talks fail.

Our view throughout this debate has been that the debt ceiling ought to rise, because there is no economically responsible way to move all the way to a zero deficit this summer. But the excessive spending that brought us to this point must also be addressed. If President Obama and the Democrats are unwilling to act, Republicans may have to take the first steps on their own.


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