There is a simple brilliance to John Boehner’s position on the federal debt ceiling.
The House speaker warned last week that Republicans in his chamber won’t vote to raise the ceiling beyond the current $14.3 trillion without a greater amount of spending cuts. That is, a $2 trillion increase in borrowing authority — what the Obama administration says it needs to make it through the rest of this fiscal year and the next one — would require spending cuts of more than $2 trillion in the near future (defined in some news reports as the next five years).
The brilliance isn’t in the numbers. Think about it for even a moment, and you’ll quickly realize that cutting spending at just one-fifth the rate of new borrowing is inadequate. It’s really the very least Congress could do, given the persistent trillion-dollar deficits fueling our debt crisis.
No, the brilliance lies in the creation of a political price for new deficits and debt.
A debt ceiling that can be lifted at any time, for any reason, with no more effort than any other act of Congress, is worthless. Actually, it’s worse than worthless, because it gives a false impression that restraint really does exist.
If you need evidence of its ineffectiveness, consider that the limit has gone up 10 times in the past 15 years, during which time the national debt has almost tripled. There’s been no cost to politicians, only to future taxpayers.
Enter Boehner’s stand.
It would represent, for the first time in a generation, a policy that forces lawmakers to reduce the burden on “our children and grandchildren” rather than merely invoking them as an applause line.
If the dollar amounts are in the trillions, it would almost certainly require Washington to confront the unsustainable entitlements that threaten younger generations’ ability to provide for themselves and their families — both during and after their working years.
In other words, it could be the beginning of a policy of not “kicking the can down the road,” to borrow the phrase President Barack Obama uses often, even if each one of his budget plans so far has kicked like an angry mule.
Here’s the political price: Members of Congress would have to explain to voters why more deficit spending this year was worth reduced services for several years into the future. No more raising the ceiling, adding to the debt and pretending that someone else, a long time from now, will foot the bill.
And if, as I hope, such a tradeoff sets a precedent for subsequent ceiling increases, lawmakers would have to repeat the exercise after next year — when, as I also hope, an economic recovery brings tax revenues back up to their historical average.
Not only is this debt-ceiling quid pro quo insufficient, but the spending cuts could be overruled or rendered meaningless by new spending in later years. We can’t afford that.
To that end, Boehner’s debt-ceiling approach would go well with a cap on all federal spending, keeping it below a certain proportion of the gross domestic product. Republicans have several proposals for a spending cap, an idea that was also endorsed by Obama’s own bipartisan fiscal commission.
But here’s the really brilliant thing, from the perspective of a taxpayer and young parent: Washington is finally debating how best, and deep, to cut spending rather than increase it. That’s a necessary first step on the long road ahead of us.
– By Kyle Wingfield