Republicans came into their annual retreat at Williamsburg, Virginia looking for a starting point in the upcoming debt and budget battles. It appears that they have emerged from the retreat with a full blown plan.
They will pass a bill this week that will suspend the debt ceiling law until May 18. The debt limit increase will be tied to a requirement that the Senate passes a budget – with the threat of cutting off pay for senators in the event they fail to come through with one by April 15. Note that there is no requirement that the Senate pass a budget that balances in 10 years, just that they pass any budget.
The underlying rationale behind this strategy is to defer the debt ceiling fight until after the FY 2013 CR is dealt with and the FY 2014 budgets are formulated. The idea is that the House would unite behind a pro-active budget/debt plan in March from which they would harness as their demand for any long-term debt ceiling increase in mid-April.
What sort of budget plan would Republicans formulate in March? According to a joint letter by five current and former chairmen of the Republican Study Committee, who are all supporting this plan, “the House will work to put the country on the path to a balanced budget in 10 years. House leadership also agreed to stand by the $974 billion discretionary number that is part of the sequestration process.”
If Republicans would truly use this short-term extension as an opportunity to formulate a balanced budget from which to use as any future demand for raising the debt ceiling, it’s a great deal. But please forgive me for feeling a bit like Moses during his interaction with Pharaoh during the plagues. After incurring the wrath of God for obdurately reneging on his promise to let the Jews out of Egypt, Pharaoh finally confessed his sins during the seventh plague and promised to let them go. Moses agreed to suspend the hail, but he was not fooled after 7 times. “But as for thee and thy servants, I know that ye will not yet fear the LORD God [Exodus 9, 30].”
By my count, there have been at least seven budget/debt battles over the past two years in which Republicans have either deferred, punted, or caved. While they offer excuses for shirking from the battle at hand, they always emphatically promise to fight the next one. Look, maybe Boehner told the conservatives in the House something that gave them the impression he had a complete epiphany. Maybe they really will formulate a budget that will balance in 10 years. But even if they do, does anyone really believe they will stand behind it as a demand for a long-term debt limit increase as the clock winds down to midnight May 18?
Conservatives need to ask the following question: why is it that leadership shirks from a fight every time they get close to the supposed deadline? They are obviously too scared to fight. So why will things change on May 18? Formulating a balanced budget is one thing; standing behind it – or even one or two consequential parts of it – when you have the leverage to do so is another thing.
We can talk from now until tomorrow about unilaterally passing a good budget in the House, but if we are not going to use one of the points of leverage (debt ceiling/CR) to enforce it, the promise is worthless. Even if conservatives sign onto this deal, it’s about time they force leadership to grow out of their “fear of the dark” with brinkmanship. They must pass the Full Faith and Credit Act, which will force the Treasury to prioritize debt payments in the event that an agreement is not reached, as part of the bill this week.
Many of the key figures in the pseudo-conservative intelligentsia are trying to convince conservatives in the House that there is no point in fighting for the next 4 years – as if we could even wait that long. They contend that it’s impossible to “govern from the House.” These supercilious wizards of smart would be wise to relearn the lessons of the Gingrich-era House. Despite their stubborn believe that we were eviscerated during the periods of brinkmanship in ’95-‘96, House conservatives successfully used their unswerving stance to force through welfare reform, a balanced budget, and tax cuts. Yes, they did control the Senate, but the rudderless leadership there had nothing to do with that success. It all came from the House. Republicans actually gained seats in the Senate in ’96. And no, Bob Dole did not lose the election because of the government shutdown.
Hence, Republicans actually achieved more when they were in control of the House than when they had the presidency.
Even the intransigent rubes like us intuitively understand that we will never get a full balance budget out of this. We’re not going to get free-market Medicare reform, welfare reform, Medicaid block grants, and private Social Security accounts in one deal. All we ask is that we begin negotiating from a balanced budget, and show the Democrats that we mean business – that we are willing to engage in brinkmanship to force some transformational change. We must get one or two significant reforms or reductions in the size of government as part of the final deal. Yet, we will only win those reforms if we are willing to engage in brinkmanship at some point.
Maybe this plan is the beginning of such an effort, but conservatives ought to receive a blood-oath from Boehner before going along with it.