Many times in the past, Congress has voted to raise the nation’s debt ceiling with little or no controversy. Not so this year. The Republicans turned the vote on the debt ceiling into a major political issue by threatening to vote No, at least unless the Democrats made significant spending concessions. Initially, the Democrats squealed. Over time, however, they realized that the situation presents, for them, a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Thus, they developed the strategy that we now see at work: First, publicize a purported deadline for an agreement to raise the ceiling, and promote the claim–false, in my view–that a fiscal disaster will ensue if a deal is not reached by that supposed deadline. Second, engage in secret negotiations with the Republican leadership that are expanded to include future tax increases and limited entitlement reform. That is the stage we are in now. Third, announce a deal–a cosmic, bipartisan budget agreement that ostensibly saves the Republic from a sea of debt–48 hours or so before the bogus debt ceiling deadline. Fourth, commit the deal to writing and rush it through Congress before anyone has a chance to read it or understand what is in it. Sound familiar?
The Democrats stand to gain enormously from this strategy. As things are now, they are stuck with a fiscal record that is utterly indefensible. In a mere two and a half years, the Obama administration has rung up deficits that dwarf any in our history. Trillions of dollars have been added to the national debt. We have gone for more than two years without having a federal budget in place–which is not only scandalous, but illegal. And President Obama proposed a budget for FY 2012 that was so absurd that it couldn’t garner a single vote in the Senate. The Democrats, based on their dismal record, deserve to go down to a resounding defeat in 2012.
But a last-minute, cosmic bipartisan budget agreement can save them. It will raise taxes, but those tax increases can’t be used as a campaign issue because Republicans will have gone along with them. The debt crisis will still be with us, but it will be hard for Republicans to make much of it because, after all, the recent effort to deal with the debt issue will have been a bipartisan one. And who can complain about the looming entitlements disaster, when Congress has just enacted bipartisan entitlement “reform?” In essence, the Democrats want Republicans to hold hands with them as they go over the waterfall.
Over time, of course, the truth about the deal will leak out. Voters will learn that the ballyhooed trillions of dollars in spending cuts are more or less nonexistent: First, the “cuts” will consist entirely of smaller increases, not actual reductions. Second, they will occur mostly or exclusively in the “out years,” and therefore will probably never take place at all, since whoever is in Congress eight or ten years from now will not be bound to the slightest degree by any purported deal the Republicans may agree to later this month. Third, many of the supposed cuts will prove to be nothing but accounting legerdemain.
Likewise, voters will slowly realize that the cosmic bipartisan budget agreement does little or nothing to control our burgeoning federal debt. But that understanding will come later; hopefully, from the Democrats’ standpoint, after the November 2012 elections return President Obama for a second term and sustain their majority in the Senate, while–who knows?–perhaps returning the House to Democratic control.
A few Republicans, at least, are on to the Democrats’ game. A group of fiscal hawks in the Senate, led by Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, has repeatedly pressed for transparency in the context of a Senate budget saga that has been nothing short of absurdist theater. The latest wrinkle is that the Democrats have a budget, but they are keeping it secret! One wonders: how low can the Democrats sink? There is not a Cub Scout troop in America that conducts its finances with either the irresponsibility or the dishonesty of the Democrats in Congress.
Today, seven Republican Senators, led by Jeff Sessions–the others were Senators DeMint, Rubio, Paul, Ayotte, Johnson and Vitter–sent a letter to Harry Reid, complaining about the Democrats’ secretive processes:
We were pleased to learn last week that you ultimately decided against adjourning the Senate for the entire week. We must address the nation’s overspending and debt, and ward off what has been called the “most predictable economic crisis” in our nation’s history. …
Yet, to date, no budget work has been scheduled. …
We ask that you, as Majority Leader, call for the latest Democratic budget to immediately be made public, in all of its detail, and brought through the statutorily-mandated legislative process. This will allow a meaningful debate and amendment process to unfold before the American people. If our colleagues wish to raise taxes or propose spending cuts, the American people have a right to see that plan on paper. Senators have a legitimate expectation that they will be able to review and amend it.
Many traditions have gone by the wayside during the last few years of Democratic control, none more important than the legislative process itself. The idea that major legislation affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans and the future prosperity of our children and grandchildren should be rushed through Congress without being read, without being debated, without being amended, without being made known to voters, is an outrage. With respect to the budget, it is an illegal outrage.
Republicans should have nothing to do with such banana republic proceedings. There should be no eleventh-hour cosmic bipartisan deal on the budget. The nation’s fiscal future should be debated and legislated on in an organized, transparent, legal, public manner. First choice: Republicans vote against an increase in the debt limit. Contrary to hysterical pronouncements from the likes of the discredited Tim Geithner, this would not cause the federal government to default on its bonds. Rather, the government would continue to pay principal and interest as it comes due, and would be forced to cut spending in other areas. Second choice: Republicans vote to increase the debt limit in exchange for specific, tangible spending cuts or other consideration–e.g., reductions in the continuing resolutions that fund FY 2011 spending–not in connection with a grand compromise. Third choice: Republicans vote to increase the debt limit with no conditions and no grand compromise, reserving all issues relating to the federal budget, future taxes, entitlement reform, etc. for another day and for an appropriate legislative process. Worst choice: Republicans join hands with Democrats and go over the fiscal waterfall together, to the Democrats’ everlasting political gain.
UPDATE: The seven Senators who joined in today’s letter to Harry Reid are doing great service on behalf of the Republic. They and others will come under great pressure to go along with the prospective budget deal. It would be great to send their offices congratulations on standing up both for a sane budget, and for a sane budget process.