Politics & Policy

Take the Hostage

John Boehner returns as Speaker of the House for the 113th Congress.
Republicans should use the debt-limit legislation to force spending cuts.

The budget crisis is over. Long live the budget crisis.

Now that the fiscal cliff has been resolved, we’re on to the fight over raising the debt ceiling. President Barack Obama wants no part of it. Huffing and stomping his feet immediately after Congress passed his tax increases to avoid the cliff, he insisted that there is no way he’ll negotiate over the debt ceiling. That would be so inappropriate.

#ad#Cue the hostage-taking analogies, the talk of extremism, the lamentations over a broken Washington. But why is the president outraged that someone would use the leverage of an impending event that everyone wants to avoid and that would damage the economy to his negotiating advantage? It’s precisely how he won on the cliff.

No one called him a hostage-taker when he didn’t immediately accept the House Republican extension of all the Bush tax cuts, and instead insisted on forcing a choice between higher tax rates on the wealthy or going off the cliff.

He got his way. Not because Republicans wanted to raise taxes. But because taxes would go up for everyone on January 1, and very few people (and no Republicans) wanted that to happen. Obama used every ounce of his leverage to raise taxes on as many people as he could — and succeeded. Congratulations.

Now that the leverage may work the other way, Obama wants an end to all this crazy talk of negotiating things and compromising. “I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they’ve already racked up,” the president bristled. He has apparently been an innocent bystander while the national debt increased by 60 percent since he took office. It’s just his rotten luck to have to preside over such a profligate country.

We’ve hit the debt limit of $16.4 trillion, and it will need to be extended in a couple of months. When $16.4 trillion in debt isn’t enough, you’ve clearly got a problem. The president always says that we need a “balanced approach” to address it. In the cliff deal, he got one part of the balance.

He increased income-tax rates on the oft-invoked “millionaires and billionaires,” and even all the way down to $400,000-aires. In fact, thanks to the expiration of the payroll-tax cut, the deal raised taxes on 77 percent of Americans, according to the Tax Policy Center. Finally, people making $40,000 a year will pay their “fair share”! The Tax Policy Center calculates that about half the additional revenue from the deal over the next year will come from households making less than $200,000.

So the tax increases — both on the rich and on the middle class — have been gloriously written into law. What about the spending cuts that the president has said in the past should be a disproportionate share of any budget solution? He’s not the least bit interested in those, except as a rhetorical device. Which is why Republicans are always in the position of trying to force him to accept some sort of spending discipline.

In a better, more rational world, the debt limit wouldn’t be a tool of budgetary policy. But it is one of the few must-pass pieces of legislation that Republicans can use to force spending cuts, and it obviously relates directly to our budget problem. If the president doesn’t want the debate over it to go nerve-wrackingly down to the wire, he can set out a serious offer, now.

Of course, he’s doing the opposite. His refusal to negotiate isn’t sustainable, but he’ll spend precious time trying to sustain it. He’ll finally agree to talk, and then get Republicans to back off whatever their maximal position is — because Republicans will again fear being blamed if there’s no agreement. Another Band-Aid will be applied to the debt, until next time. In the Age of Obama, the new budget crisis always follows the last.

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail:comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2013 King Features Syndicate

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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