As I write, President Obama is about to announce the gun-control proposals his administration has been drafting since the Sandy Hook school massacre (although some of them almost certainly were on his wish list before he ever entered the White House). We’ll discuss that here after they’ve been made official and we’ve had time to digest them.
In the meantime, and of a more time-sensitive nature, we march on toward next month’s trio of fiscal deadlines: the expiration of temporary funding measures for the federal government, the end of a two-month delay in the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, and the end of the administration’s authority to borrow more money.
That last issue, popularly known as the debt ceiling, has drawn the most attention, with Democrats accusing the GOP of holding the economy hostage by insisting on spending cuts if they are to raise the ceiling. We’ve seen this movie before, in the summer of 2011. It didn’t end all that well.
It did, however, provide House Republicans with the only real leverage they have in these matters. Not raising the debt ceiling is not a real option, certainly not for any substantial length of time. And there is no reason for them even to consider not raising it. Sequestration is all they need.
Obama and congressional Democrats say the debt ceiling is about paying the nation’s bills. And while that’s overgeneralized — and not the same tune they sung when it was a Republican president asking for more borrowing authority — there’s a great deal of truth to it. For any substantial length of time in the near future, Congress cannot make good on its promises to lenders, vendors and citizens without borrowing more money.
But it can avoid running up so many new bills. Which brings me to sequestration.
The cuts in the sequester, negotiated as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling in August 2011, total about $1.2 trillion over 10 years. As Speaker John Boehner noted in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Democrats have always assumed the GOP would back out on the deal because of the defense cuts included. But more and more, it appears Republicans are willing to bite that bullet if it’s the only way they can get real spending cuts.
If so, the calculus changes completely. All the House GOP has to do is announce that a “clean” increase in the debt ceiling, the no-strings-attached approach on which Obama insists, will mean the sequester goes forward as planned. If Obama can’t live with that, the GOP can make clear they’d be happy to negotiate changes to the sequester in tandem with the debt ceiling.
The economy isn’t at risk due to the debt ceiling, then — unless it’s the president doing the hostage-taking by refusing to go along with the cuts he agreed to make a year and a half ago.
Oh, and tax increases as a substitute for sequester cuts are off the table. We got tax increases in the Jan. 1 fiscal-cliff deal.
This approach doesn’t address the long-term fiscal problems the nation faces. Fortunately, the expiration of the latest “continuing resolution” funding the government provides an opportunity to do that. The debt ceiling doesn’t have to figure into these negotiations.
– By Kyle Wingfield