With debt deal up in the air, settle it with a coin toss
The Washington Post, July 28, 2011
I wish I could say this was a time for patriots of every stripe to come together to put our fiscal house in order. But this is not that time. This is a time for scared politicians of every stripe to walk themselves back from the brink with a face-saving ploy that sidesteps a crisis. Mitch McConnell, bless his calculating heart, understood this sooner than anyone.
Let's review who needs what at this hour:
—The House Tea Party caucus needs big discretionary spending cuts that exceed any debt limit increase, no tax increases, no GOP approval of a higher debt ceiling and something that looks like a fundamental change in entitlement spending—which means they need another debt-ceiling showdown before the 2012 election as a forcing device to enact at least a blueprint for such reforms.
—The White House needs something that can be called a "substantial down payment" on deficit reduction, which, when paired with their ability to cast Republicans as unreasonably opposed to fair tax increases on hedge fund managers, oil companies and corporate jet owners, will suffice for the president's campaign. But the White House cannot abide more debt ceiling votes during 2012. Even if voters tend to blame the GOP for these clashes, a president who presides over 18 months of endless near-chaos looks fatally weak.
—The Senate will bless whatever the House and the president can agree to. This shorthand doesn't credit the constructive work that Harry Reid and various gangs have been up to, but that's the bottom line.
Given all this, what gets us past today's pickle? The original McConnell gambit was fiendishly clever in letting Republicans "disapprove" of any debt-ceiling increase, but it didn't have spending cuts. However, you could easily graft a form of McConnell onto some version of either John Boehner's or Harry Reid's discretionary spending cuts, which both amount to a trillion or so dollars over 10 years (once you back out of Reid's "cuts" the absence of baseline spending projected in Iraq and Afghanistan). Trimmed from a total of about $45 trillion in planned spending over the next decade, the republic will survive.
Despite dueling CBO scores and caucus revolts, these two dimensions—the "down payment on deficit reduction" and the "disapproval"—are pretty straightforward. The real sticking point is whether the debt limit increase gets us past the 2012 election. That's what this fight is coming down to. And both sides are understandably entrenched.
Take the Tea Partyers. Even if they've been reminded by an angry John Boehner that they can't expect to change the world while holding only the House, the freshmen have already seen that they can indeed transform the national debate by holding the economy hostage. Why wouldn't they want another bite at that apple before Election Day? My own view is that House Republicans have been reckless and hypocritical (the latter because they've all voted for the Ryan budget that adds $5 trillion to the debt in the next decade, a fact the White House has been too witless to have hammered home). Still, as an exercise of raw power, Tea Party stubbornness does reveal a certain (misguided) integrity.