Sly as a fox or sneaky as a weasel? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has offered a contingency plan for a debt-ceiling increase that is being viewed both warily and cheerfully on the right — and with shock, but early seeming delight, in some precincts of the left.
Let’s try to figure out what’s going on.
Rich Lowry at National Review Online seems to have the most details about what the McConnell plan would entail. It is a backward legislation process by which the president gets what he wants, even if neither chamber can muster a majority vote in favor of what the president wants, unless a super-majority (two-thirds) of both chambers votes to override the president’s veto of the disapproval of his plan. And this process would play out three times during the next 12 months, with the president making three separate requests in the amounts of $700 billion, $900 billion and $900 billion.
The plan is being called an automatic debt-ceiling increase for President Obama, which isn’t technically true — but it is true for all intents and purposes, because veto overrides are fairly rare things.
There are two apparent catches where Obama is concerned. First, he can only get a $100 million increase before Congress votes. And those votes require him to submit a plan for cutting spending — there’s no mention of raising taxes — by an amount equal to each total request. That means a total of $2.5 trillion in cuts if he’s to get all three requests.
Second, by giving the impression that a debt-ceiling increase is there for Obama’s taking if further negotiations break down, McConnell is trying to kill the arguments that congressional Republicans are blocking a deal and risking a (technical) default of the federal government.
Yet, at first glance, I have strong reservations about each point.
On the first point: There is nothing in the McConnell plan, as far as I can tell right now, to allow Congress to direct where the spending cuts go (other than the potential, but highly unlikely, veto override). As far as I can tell, Obama could simply say he’s going to cut the defense budget by $2.5 trillion over the next 10 years — which Republicans and, I suspect, even a lot of Democrats would find objectionable — and Congress would be virtually powerless to stop him. (To my friends on the left: Try to keep in mind that in future years, this arrangement could set a precedent for cutting Obamacare, Medicaid, welfare, etc. in the same way.)
Worse, there does not appear to be much of an enforcement mechanism for making sure the cuts actually happen. Congress would have to incorporate them in future appropriations bills. But what if, for instance, Senate Democrats filibustered those appropriations bills until the cuts were removed. Or, worse, what if Obama went back on his word and vetoed the appropriations bills, negating the cuts he promised to make? Those scenarios may or may not be likely, but in this kind of situation I think it’s worth examining such possibilities.
And still worse, this arrangement would seem to have the same problem that congressional Republicans have complained about regarding the cuts Obama already has proposed: That they’re back-loaded in a way that keeps deficits large now and makes future cuts less likely to actually be made.
In other words, this does not seem likely to produce good fiscal policy.
Now, on the second point: This may or may not be good politics — it’s not obviously good politics, imo — but it strikes me as too clever by half and too cynical by full. I think it could easily be seen, and rightly so, as an abdication of duty.
Let the House pass a debt-ceiling measure, and let McConnell attempt to bring it to the Senate floor. Or, let them say that they’ll approve a debt-ceiling increase if the Senate will approve and Obama will sign the Ryan budget plan for 2012. And if Senate Democrats won’t take up either measure and won’t propose an alternative, we’ll know who stood in the way.
The GOP doesn’t need to resort to this kind of gimmickry. Or can someone convince me that this is actually a good idea?
– By Kyle Wingfield