Boehner’s Great Escape (For Now)

Throughout the debt-ceiling showdown Boehner has been in a very perilous place and at times it’s been hard to see how he could get out of it. Early this morning it looked like his speakership could be effectively over. But he recovered with the addition of the balanced budget amendment requirement to the measure. We’ll see how he fares when, in all likelihood, a compromise measure comes back to the House even less to the liking off his members (whatever chance there was of getting the Senate eventually to give in and adopt Boehner wholesale ended last night).


What Republicans will get in any final deal will mostly be avoiding negatives–no tax increases and no blame for a partial government shutdown upon passing the debt ceiling. They will also get spending caps which should be a restraint on discretionary spending over time. This seems a piddling accomplishment but no one has yet offered a plausible path to getting much more, certainly nothing transformative. The fact is that even the most devoted Tea Party purists in Congress have voted to increase the debt, which none of them should have done if they were serious about opposing an increase in the debt limit. No one has offered a plan to balance the budget immediately–to wipe out all discretionary spending or to begin cuts in entitlement spending next week.


I would have preferred a House plan that was simpler and had a higher dollar amount in savings, but the dirty secret is that even among the most committed Tea Partiers there was little appetite for voting to cut entitlements again, especially if Democrats weren’t going to go along (and they weren’t without a “grand bargain”). The great thing about the balanced budget amendment is that it allowed them to talk about the balanced budget without doing too much to balance the budget any time soon.


Sure, there was always the possibility of a deliberate strategy of holding out past the deadline. But you’ll hear advocates of this course say two slightly contradictory things. Sometimes they say the debt-ceiling deadline is meaningless so nothing serious will happen if we blow by it. On the other hand, they suggest the GOP would gain radically enhanced leverage on August 3 because Democrats would immediately cry uncle in the midst of the ensuing crisis and accede to the balanced budget amendment. Neither of these things is particularly plausible. Eventually, passing the deadline would have brought disruptions and Republicans would have been blamed for them, since they would have been the ones welcoming blowing past the deadline and, well, they are always blamed. Their leverage would have diminished after the deadline, and they’d have risked damaging the party and its eventual presidential nominee.


Given all this, the verdict on what will probably be the eventual deal can only be unsatisfactory, yet acceptable in the context of the real-world alternatives.

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: 

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