Will We Finally Get a Budget?

The current federal debt ceiling will be reached next month, and Democrats have been furiously posturing to limit the gains that Republicans can make in exchange for the House’s agreement to raise it. President Obama insists that he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling–not ever, not for anything–and Republicans should agree to raise it without getting anything in return. (This is much the same as his position on taxes.) Other Democrats are floating theories that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional, or that the administration can circumvent it by minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin.

In truth, while these ideas are goofy and Obama’s position is, as usual, unreasonable, Republicans cannot expect to get much in exchange for their consent to a higher debt limit. The threat to refuse to adjust the debt limit just isn’t credible enough, given the consequences that would result: not default, but an inability on the part of the federal government to pay government employees, sustain troops in the field, mail out Social Security checks, and so on. Some conservatives have argued that Republicans should hold out for entitlement reform in exchange for raising the debt limit. They are dreaming. Entitlement reform will happen someday, but not until there is a great deal more political support for it, and not in exchange for an increase in the debt ceiling.

Congressional Republicans have come up with what I think is a good idea: they want to condition approval of a new debt ceiling on Harry Reid’s agreement to allow the Senate to adopt a budget. Byron York reports:

The law requires Congress to pass a budget every year, on the grounds that Americans deserve to know how the government plans to spend the trillions of taxpayer dollars it collects, along with dollars it borrows at the taxpayers’ expense. But Majority Leader Harry Reid, who last allowed a budget through the Senate in April 2009, has ignored the law since then. …

The situation is deeply frustrating for many Republicans. Sen. Jeff Sessions, ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, has conducted a virtual crusade on the issue, loudly and consistently and unsuccessfully demanding that Reid obey the law and pass a budget. Now, with a fight over the debt ceiling approaching, Sessions wants to try something new.

“I think it should be a firm principle that we should not raise the debt ceiling until we have a plan on how the new borrowed money will be spent,” Sessions told me Monday in a phone conversation from his home in Alabama. “If the government wants to borrow money so it can spend more, then the government ought to tell the Congress and the American people how they will spend it.”

There are no specific proposals yet, but under this scenario Republicans would insist on a debt ceiling agreement that includes (among other things) a requirement that Congress pass a budget by a specific date. If that doesn’t happen, there would be some sort of enforcement mechanism, perhaps an arrangement whereby the debt ceiling was lowered, or one in which Congress would have to muster a supermajority to raise it again.

What this proposal has going for it is its eminent reasonableness. As Sessions argues, how can the Democrats possibly justify incurring still more debt when they won’t even tell the American people how they plan to spend the money? Moreover, the budget is already required by law. The Democrats cannot seriously try to justify their refusal to follow the statute. So far the news media have covered up Harry Reid’s illegal conduct, but the debt ceiling negotiations present an opportunity to educate voters regarding the Democratic Party’s irresponsibility.

Forcing the Senate to adopt a budget will not, by itself, cut spending by a single dollar. But if voters are able to contrast the GOP’s plan for America’s fiscal future, as laid out in the House budget, with the long-awaited Democratic plan as finally made public by the Senate, they will see that the Democrats have no plan, other than racking up vast deficits as far as the eye can see. A clear majority will, I think, prefer the Republican approach. Perhaps the battle over entitlement reform will ultimately be framed by the parties’ competing budgets.

Today, Jay Carney told reporters that President Obama will not call on the Senate to enact a budget in exchange for an increase in the debt ceiling. No, of course he won’t. But he doesn’t have to. If Republicans offer to trade the debt ceiling for a budget, I don’t see how Harry Reid can say no. This is, most likely, the most practical advantage the Republicans can gain in exchange for the inevitable adjustment to the debt ceiling.