So whatever happened to the GOP fight to cut spending?
Remember during the last debt-limit showdown, when House Speaker John Boehner promised that Republicans would henceforth insist on at least one dollar in spending cuts for every dollar in debt limit increase? As Boehner put it, from now on “any increase debt limit has to be accompanied by spending reductions that meet or exceed it.”
It became known as the Boehner Rule.
Yet when the speaker recently laid out a laundry list of conditions for a debt-limit increase, he included a hodgepodge of GOP demands — from approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to a broad rollback of environmental regulations. Conspicuously absent were any “spending reductions that meet or exceed” the increase in the national debt.
Over the weekend, National Review’s Robert Costa reported that Republicans are talking about a package of modest demands to end the government shutdown and raise the debt limit — including a mechanism for revenue-neutral tax reform, small entitlement reforms and minor changes to Obamacare (such as repeal of the medical-device tax, a measure that enjoys bipartisan support).
But no one appears to be talking about enforcing the Boehner Rule. Not even Boehner.
Sticking to the Boehner Rule should be a no-brainer. A December 2012 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.” By contrast, while a growing majority of Americans disapprove of Obamacare, only 27 percent wanted Republicans to shut down the government in an effort to defund it.
In other words, Republicans are abandoning an issue where they enjoy supermajority support while pursuing a strategy that a supermajority of Americans oppose. That makes no sense.
Instead of continuing the shutdown and folding the spending bill into the debt-limit deal, Republicans should secure the gains they made with Budget Control Act by passing a “clean continuing resolution” to keep government funded at the current level without shutting off the sequester. Then, in exchange for a debt-ceiling increase, they should insist on the one demand that most Americans will see as entirely reasonable: Codify the Boehner Rule into permanent law, and cut one dollar in spending for every dollar of debt-limit increase.
There is legislation ready and waiting to do just that. Sen. Rob Portman has introduced the Dollar-for-Dollar Deficit Reduction Act, which would require that any legislation to increase the debt limit include non-interest spending cuts of an equal or greater amount over the next decade. Portman’s bill would require a three-fifths supermajority to raise the debt limit without matching spending cuts. He calculates that this would reduce spending by nearly $2 trillion over the next 10 years, get spending back below the historical average of 20 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and reduce the deficit to 1 percent of GDP by 2023. That would be no small achievement. (Full disclosure: My wife works for Portman.)
Since the next debt-limit increase will have to be about $900 billion to get through the 2014 elections, dollar-for-dollar cuts would need to be equal to that amount. But $900 billion over 10 years is not a lot. It comes to just 2 percent of the $46.677 trillion that the Congressional Budget Office projects will be spent over the coming decade. It would be hard for Obama and the Democrats to justify default because they don’t want to cut spending by 2 percent, particularly if the Republicans put forward entitlement changes in Obama’s own budget proposal. But if they want to cut less, they can raise the debt ceiling by less.
The Budget Control Act was not supposed to be the end of the spending fight, but rather the beginning — the first of many victories needed to get our fiscal house in order. But Congressional Republicans seem to have surrendered in a spending fight they can win to focus on battles they cannot win. The result will be that they will lose both.