On March 15, the debt ceiling expired. Due to extraordinary measures being taken by the United States Treasury, the United States government can continue “to meet obligations until fall 2015.” In the meantime, Republican congressional leadership has time to deploy a strategy to responsibly deal with the debt ceiling well before this fall, without waiting until the last minute. Running the clock until a deadline is days away, is known in Washington DC as manufacturing a crisis. The Republic doesn’t have to be confronted with a contrived cliff. Republicans can come up with a way to meet our fiscal obligations and shrink the size of government.
The largesse of the federal government comes at a very high cost. Fueling the massive bureaucracy created by Democrats and Republicans and sustained by both requires money and lots of it. The debt ceiling doesn’t authorize new spending. The debt ceiling is about looking backwards. Raising the debt ceiling “allows the government to finance existing legal obligations that Congresses and presidents of both parties have made in the past.” That ceiling, also called the debt limit, is determined by legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by the president. The debt limit has been raised “more than seventy times since 1962.”
After the elections in November, 2010 which gave Republicans the majority in the House, it was hoped by the conservative grassroots that fiscal discipline would be applied to the debt ceiling by House Republicans. Speaker Boehner, shortly after being elected to lead the House, announced the Boehner rule in a speech to the Economic Club of New York on May 9, 2011:
“So let me be as clear as I can be. Without significant spending cuts and reforms to reduce our debt, there will be no debt limit increase. And the cuts should be greater than the accompanying increase in debt authority the president is given. We should be talking about cuts of trillions, not just billions. They should be actual cuts and program reforms, not broad deficit or debt targets that punt the tough questions to the future.”
House Republicans worked with the Democrat Senate and passed the Budget Control Act in August 2011, which raised the debt ceiling and included cuts to programs know as the sequester. Entitlements were excluded, which meant the sequester had a minor impact on the debt.
However flawed, the BCA was a principled attempt to adhere to Speaker Boehner’s eponymous rule. And after BCA became law, Speaker Boehner doubled down on his rule. On March 15, 2012 in another speech, the speaker harkened back to his words just over a year before:
“[t]hat night in New York City, I put forth the principle that we should not raise the debt ceiling without real spending cuts and reforms that exceed the amount of the debt limit increase. From all the way up in Midtown Manhattan, I could hear a great wailing and gnashing of teeth. Over the next couple of months, I was asked again and again if I would yield on my ‘position,’ what it would take, if I would budge … Each and every time, I said ‘no’ … because it isn’t a ‘position’ – it’s a principle. Not just that – it’s the right thing to do. When the time comes, I will again insist on my simple principle of cuts and reforms greater than the debt limit increase. This is the only avenue I see right now to force the elected leadership of this country to solve our structural fiscal imbalance.”
Well, Speaker Boehner budged. He passed legislation in the House in February, 2014, to suspend the debt limit without conditions. This retreat from his earlier position demoralized conservatives, while giving a big legislative win and a blank check to President Obama. Republicans got no spending or program reductions in return.
How can Republicans win the next fight on the debt ceiling? By reviving the Boehner rule. Any increase in the debt ceiling approved by the Republican Congress should be accompanied by cuts in spending that are higher than the debt ceiling increase.
The difficult issue is what cuts to propose.
Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should form a joint House-Senate working group of members of Republicans in both chambers to develop a list of dollar-for-dollar cuts that would exchanged for an increase in the debt ceiling. That working group should have conservative marching orders from Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader McConnell who campaigned as conservatives.
This working group should be instructed by Messrs. Boehner and McConnell to consult with conservative and free market think tanks and advocacy groups in forming its recommendations. Members of the working group would also be under orders to meet with the grassroots in a series of listening tours across the country to get suggestions about spending cuts from voters.
The final product would be put together under the leadership of the speaker and the majority leader. It would be assembled in one document that would serve as the conservative movement’s position on what cuts that would be exchanged for an increase in the debt limit. The effort would help unify the base, and restore trust in the Republican congressional leadership that has let the base down so often this year. The document would be a rallying point for conservative voters and legislators. Creating and deploying this strategy has the further advantage of not requiring formal action in either chamber, thus reducing friction from big-spending Democrats.
When our nation runs up against a deadline for action, two reasons are often provided by leadership for maintaining the status quo: there is no time left and there are no other options. This strategy eliminates both. Speaker Boehner was correct when he said that the debt ceiling should only be increased if there are cuts or reforms that exceed the increase in the debt ceiling. His rule should be revived. Isn’t that what the speaker wants?
Neil Siefring is president of Hilltop Advocacy, LLC, and a former Republican House staffer. Follow him on Twitter @NeilSiefring