In the 2011 debt-limit standoff, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) established the Boehner rule, declaring that henceforth Republicans would insist on at least one dollar in spending cuts for every dollar in debt limit increase. This may have been one of the most important fiscal policy innovations in a generation. The rule is simple, it is perfectly reasonable, and it is broadly popular. A recent poll found that 72 percent of Americans agreed that “Any increase in the debt limit must be accompanied by spending cuts and reforms of a greater amount.” Only 22 percent disagreed.
Most importantly, the Boehner rule is not a gimmick. Just following this basic rule could restore fiscal sanity to our country. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has calculated that following the Boehner rule would reduce spending by more than $3 trillion over a decade and pave the way for full balance — getting the budget deficit to below 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and spending below 20 percent of GDP, by 2022. On Tuesday, Portman will introduce the “Dollar-for-Dollar Deficit Reduction Act,” which would codify the Boehner rule and mandate that any future increase in the national debt be matched with equal or greater spending cuts.
Unfortunately, House Republicans have already announced that they will violate the principle they established, and pass a three-month debt-limit increase this week without any spending cuts. Instead of cuts, the GOP will insist that the House and Senate pass formal budgets by April, or else forgo their Congressional pay. “The principle is simple: no budget, no pay,” Boehner declared.
Sorry, I thought the principle was “a dollar of spending cuts for a dollar of debt limit increase.”
Republicans claim this is no retreat, but they are not fooling anyone. White House press secretary Jay Carney celebrated the GOP capitulation, declaring the president was “encouraged” that the GOP was finally ready to “back off their insistence on holding our economy hostage to extract drastic cuts in Medicare, education, and programs middle class families depend on.” A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared the GOP move “reassuring.” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called it a “major victory” for president. And The Post editorial page welcomed the GOP’s “apparent abandonment” of their “economically nonsensical” insistence that any increase in borrowing authority be matched with equal or greater spending cuts.
Sorry, linking the raising of the debt ceiling to spending reductions is neither nonsensical nor ground breaking. In fact, every significant debt reduction bill in the last 27 years — starting withGramm-Rudman-Hollings in 1985 — was linked to a debt-limit increase. It seems to be the only thing that forces politicians in Washington to cut spending.
So why on earth would Republicans abandon that leverage, much less violate the promise they made to follow the Boehner rule on all future debt limit votes? Charles Krauthammer explained the GOP thinking this way: Many Republicans are coming to realize that they can’t govern from one house of Congress; the GOP needs to forget about forcing Obama to enact fundamental tax reform or structural reforms to entitlements and go for small victories instead.
Fair enough. So Republicans may not be able to force Obama to enact structural entitlement reforms, like those advocated by Rep. Paul Ryan. Perhaps fundamental tax reform is off the table as well — because Obama will use it to demand another round of tax increases.
But abandon the Boehner rule as well? Sticking with the Boehner rule would be a “small victory.” It is the floor of what the GOP should support in exchange for a debt-limit increase. This is not an idea coming from the far right fringes. If someone with the gravitas and mainstream credibility of Portman is saying that this is the path Republicans should take, maybe it’s time for the House leaders to stop and listen.
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