Just in time: A debt ceiling game changer

Colin Hanna President, Let Freedom Ring
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America’s debt bomb is ticking. No one knows for sure when, but at some point in the next couple of months it will go off unless Congress and President Barack Obama can reach some kind of agreement that raises the debt ceiling.

Right now it looks like negotiations are stalled. Each side has taken a position the other side finds unacceptable. Republicans say, “No net increase in taxes.” Democrats say, “No cuts to entitlement programs.” It’s a stalemate, one the media portrays as a simple, if classic, battle of the wills between those who oppose higher taxes and those who oppose cuts to entitlements.

In the last few days, however, a new way to bring the parties together has emerged that promises to be a game changer: the Cut, Cap and Balance Act, offered by Senators Mike Lee, Rand Paul and Pat Toomey.

The plan — which would substantially cut next year’s projected deficit, institute statutory spending caps and require Congress pass and send to the states a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution that has real teeth — is still the only serious proposal out there that would amount to a permanent fix.

The plan originated as three separate, related policy proposals supported by over 100 members of Congress. It first came together as a pledge in which the three elements were linked as a single set of preconditions. Lawmakers who signed it pledged not to support a debt ceiling increase unless all three preconditions were met. A coalition supporting the pledge was formed, and it quickly grew to over 200 groups, both conservative and Tea Party in nature, making it the largest ever center-right coalition of outside groups.

All Pledge signers to date have been Republicans, in large part because Democrats do not support a balanced-budget amendment — the one element of the plan that requires a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress to pass — even though the idea is supported by 80 percent of the voting public.

Last week, Senators Lee, Toomey and Paul introduced the Cut, Cap and Balance Act, which took the three elements of the original plan and turned them into a specific piece of legislation. Here’s the twist: Instead of requiring that all three preconditions be met before voting on a debt ceiling increase, this new bill includes the $2.4 trillion debt ceiling increase that Democrats want, conditioned on the passage of a balanced-budget amendment.

The Cut, Cap and Balance Act would only require simple majorities to pass, not two-thirds majorities (although it might procedurally require 60 votes in the Senate). Once passed, the pre-approved debt ceiling increase would sit like a bunch of grapes, ripe for the picking but inaccessible until Congress passes the balanced-budget amendment. This would give Democrats an incentive to support the balanced-budget amendment. And it would give Republicans the holy grail of fiscal responsibility, a strong balanced-budget amendment that cannot be easily watered down by successive Congresses the way that a package of budget and program cuts can be.

Voters are tired of accounting tricks and typical Washington deals. They understand that the solution, the real solution, is a simple one: to change the way Congress does its business — permanently. The Cut, Cap and Balance Act is such a solution. It has already garnered more than 20 co-sponsors in the Senate and is expected to be introduced in the House this week.

It’s what America wants. More importantly, it’s what America needs.

Colin Hanna is president of Let Freedom Ring, a public policy nonprofit based in Pennsylvania, and a member of the Cut, Cap and Balance Pledge coalition.