Take the Phone Off the Hook

I have been covering the fiscal cliff deal and the subsequent jockeying in advance of debt ceiling negotiations in my RCP newsletter. By the nature of that newsletter, I don’t give my own opinion, but I hardly need to. The facts are pretty clear and it’s easy to draw your own conclusions.

Speaker of the House John Boehner agreed to a deal that raised taxes on the wealthy, while getting no spending cuts in return—and, not surprisingly, could not rally his caucus behind the deal. Republicans in the House voted 2-1 against it, leaving Boehner to pass it on votes from Democrats.

In exchange, Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell assumed that they had put the tax issue behind them. Which they haven’t. As I wrote:

“Yet in a move that surprises no one—except perhaps McConnell and Boehner—House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi declares that the tax increases in the fiscal cliff deal were ‘not enough on the revenue side,’ and vows that more tax increases are ‘not off the table.’

“President Obama delivers the same message, calling for tax reforms aimed at, you guessed it, extracting more money from the rich…. You may remember earlier on that Republicans offered to eliminate some ‘loopholes’ and deductions in exchange for keeping tax rates low. Now Obama wants both: raise the rates and eliminate the deductions.”

So has Boehner learned anything from this debacle? Maybe. In an interview with Stephen Moore, Boehner reflects on how the deal went bad.

In hindsight, what does he think was his biggest strategic mistake? “What I should have done the day after the election was to come out and say: The House has done its work. The House passed a bill that replaced the sequester with real spending cuts. The House passed a plan extending all of the current tax rates. We passed a budget. We call upon the Senate to do their work.”

For now, that seems to be Boehner’s approach to the debt ceiling negotiations: pass a bill in the House raising the debt ceiling on their terms—accompanying it with spending cuts—and then leave the Senate and the president to put themselves in the position of blocking this legislation.

But if you don’t think the gang who botched the previous round of negotiations will have the courage to brass it out this time around—well, that’s a pretty reasonable guess.

Consider the testimony of Steve LaTourette, a retiring nine-term Republican congressman from Ohio, who defended John Boehner against the “crazy” Republican radicals.

I’m sure they have a certain ideology, but if the purpose of the place is to govern—if your ideology is you don’t believe in governing, I can’t say anything to that. But if you want a smaller, more responsible government, you have to go for the achievable. Or you can say “no” all you want, but then you can’t squawk if leadership has to go across the hall to get Democrats to vote for it….

Boehner can’t be a leader if he doesn’t have guys behind him to lead.

And then what did LaTourette do immediately upon leaving the House of Representatives? He became a lobbyist, i.e., one of the guys agitating for more spending. And he wonders why guys like him don’t have the credibility to rally advocates of smaller government.

Or consider the testimony of Newt Gingrich. The first House leader of the modern era to lose a budget battle with a Democratic president predicts that the current leadership will follow his example.

[E]verybody’s now talking about, okay, now comes the debt ceiling. I think that’s frankly now a dead loser because in the end, you know what’s going to happen. The whole national financial system is going to come into Washington, by television, and say, “Oh my God, this would be a gigantic heart attack. The entire economy of the world will collapse. You guys can’t be responsible.” And they’ll cave.

Establishment types like Gingrich have been blaming the “crazy” Tea Party radicals for all of these problems, but the Tea Partiers look to me like the only ones who know what they’re doing. Ted Cruz, just elected to the Senate with Tea Party support, explains why Republicans should follow a different part of Gingrich’s example.

You fast-forward to the debt ceiling. I think that’s the mirror image of the fiscal cliff, because the default, if nothing happens, is that the debt ceiling is not raised.
And what that means—it doesn’t mean, as some who would demagogue this issue suggest, it doesn’t mean a default on our debt. What not raising the debt ceiling would mean is a partial government shutdown. Roughly, 40 cents of every dollar the federal government spends is borrowed. If you don’t raise the debt ceiling, that 40 cents is temporarily stopped. 

Now, we did that in 1995. We didn’t default on our debt. And the result was balanced budgets, and some of the greatest fiscal responsibility we have seen in modern times from Congress, because fiscal conservatives stood together and said, we need to be responsible.

Here is what House Republicans ought to do. They should pass a bill raising the debt ceiling but also mandating the entitlement reforms needed to cut government spending significantly over the long term. Then they should pass a bill detailing how the Treasury should respond if the debt ceiling is not lifted, instructing the Treasury to pay interest on the national debt first, then listing the order of priority for all other government spending. The purpose of this bill is to specifically counter the claim that failure to raise the debt ceiling will cause default.

Then if they want to show that they are really serious, Republicans should take the phone off the hook, call an early congressional recess, and go home. (This would have the added advantage of stalling out President Obama’s new push for gun control.)

Speaker Boehner should give a speech to the press that goes along the following lines.

“Inevitably, President Obama will lecture us about how we should ‘do our job.’ Well, we are doing our job. We have done our job. We have passed legislation necessary to ensure the long-term solvency of the federal government, and we have even provided for how the Treasury can avoid default in the absence of such a long-term plan.

“The Constitution very specifically gives the House of Representatives the initiative on questions of taxes and spending. We are the direct representatives of the people, and the Founders entrusted us first of all with the management of the people’s money. This means that it is our job to plan out the federal budget and put the country on a path that is economically and fiscally sustainable over the long term. It is not our job simply to write blank checks for the president. To do that would be to give up on doing our jobs.

“The Senate and the president have the legislation we think the country needs. If they don’t like what we have passed, they are welcome to come to us and suggest changes. But we are an independent branch of government and they cannot dictate terms to us.

“That’s especially true because they have not done their jobs. The Senate has refused to pass a budget for four years. The president has refused to address the problem of runaway government spending. And you in the press, you haven’t been doing your jobs, either. The nation has been without a budget for years, an unprecedented failure of the most basic responsibility of government, and where are the stories, the crusades, the multi-part documentaries putting pressure on the Senate?

“So I hope no one will tell the House of Representatives to do its job. We have done our job, and we’re the only ones in Washington who have. Now we’re going to do the other part of our job, which is answering to our constituents. We are headed home to our districts to inform the voters about what we have done, to explain how we have addressed the nation’s long-term fiscal problems, and to inform them about the failure of the Senate and the president to address these questions. Given that these constituents so recently re-elected us, we are confident that if we explain these issues clearly, they will support us.”

But I’ll stop there, because this is starting to sound like a right-leaning version of one of those stupid television shows about a fictional president, where Aaron Sorkin dreams up his fantasy of what a wise and dignified Democratic president would look like, as an escape from the real-life inadequacies of the actual occupant of the White House.

There will be no escaping, I am afraid, from the real-life inadequacies of the Speaker of the House.


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