The case against raising the debt limit (without any strings attached)

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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During a Christian Science Monitor breakfast the other day, Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham reportedly said, “[W]e should raise the debt limit,” adding: “My tactic is to focus on the CR.”

But later, in a statement, Needham seemed to reverse course, saying, “We do not support clean debt ceiling increases, but because Heritage Action is committed to giving House Leadership the flexibility they need to refocus the debate on Obamacare we will not key vote against the reported proposal.” (Bold mine.)

Aside from the confusion, the notion that Republicans should raise the debt ceiling without exacting some concessions goes against years of conservative orthodoxy. That’s because one thing Republicans tend to agree on is that the debt is a problem — and that fixing it will require entitlement reform or spending cuts.

At least 20 times since the Eisenhower Administration, Congress has used the debt limit as an opportunity for policy reforms. This includes the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings reforms, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, the Congressional Review Act in 1996, and (most recently) the Budget Control Act in 2011.

And until the last 48 hours, conservatives seemed to believe the only way to get Democrats to agree to fix the debt problem would be to utilize the moment of maximum leverage — which is the debt ceiling increase. “That’s the moment when even liberal presidents like Barack Obama know they can’t play chicken,” says one Republican Senate aide.

Let’s get back to Heritage Action’s apparent contradiction. What accounts for it? “They are so interested in vindicating their shutdown strategy, that they’re willing to sacrifice principles the’ve always held,” says the aide. “They’re forcing lawmakers to take a public position that is contrary to what they’ve always believed, but they themselves will not say it publicly.”

“They’re asking us to do something — not unlike what they asked us to do in filibustering a bill to block Obamacare — that goes against what we believe,” the aide continued.

The up side to raising the debt ceiling (without any strings attached) is that removes fears of default, which would presumably calm the markets, and prevent Republicans from being blamed for any catastrophic economic conditions that might occur.

And, of course, it would also allow conservatives to continue to use the government shutdown as leverage for defunding Obamacare.

But this strategy is not without its problems. In fact, it might be playing into the Democrats’ hands. “Obama doesn’t really give a shit how long the government shutdown lasts because it only hurts Republicans, says my source, “but Obama doesn’t want to be the first president in history to preside over a default.”

This position was echoed recently by Charles Krauthammer, who wrote: “The rule is simple: shutdown good, debt ceiling bad. Every day the debt ceiling approaches, President Obama’s leverage diminishes.”