Another Perspective

Here’s the Deal

There's a preferable alternative to shutting the government down -- ask Sens. DeMint and Toomey.

By 3.31.11

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In an otherwise perceptive account of the budget dilemma in which Congress finds itself, the Washington Post last week erroneously asserted it is "inevitable" that Congress "reach a deal to fund the federal government through September, the end of the fiscal year," because congressional leaders in both parties agree they must; it is just a matter of how. To the contrary, it is not at all clear that Republican leaders do, in fact, agree it is necessary to pass a comprehensive Continuing Resolution (CR) taking us through the rest of the fiscal year. And even if they do agree, it does not imply they should.

It is true, as the Post contends, that "limping along" on a series of stopgap funding extensions has been "a hassle to negotiate, with the two parties bickering over spending cuts for little benefit." However, it is far from certain that it would be less of a "hassle" or less costly politically for Republicans to pass a comprehensive CR taking us through the end of the fiscal year rather than finishing out the fiscal year by continuing to piece together a series of short-term extensions, adding additional spending cuts to each extension along the way during the next six months. 

Moreover, for a significant contingent of the Republican Party -- which is perfectly willing to shut the government down, indeed is hankering to do so -- "limping along" may be far preferable to sailing through on a comprehensive CR, which may enrage the GOP base.

The Washington Post now reports that when some Republican House freshmen went home this week, constituents urged them to keep up the budget brinkmanship:

"They say: 'Shut it down. Shut it down,'" said Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), meaning the government. "I think the American people are ahead of us on this. And they're prepared for it.'"

A strategy of serial short-term extensions may be just the way for Republicans to have their cake and eat it too if a gimpy Uncle Sam earns them plaudits from the party's conservative base without raising most other people's ire, whereas a government shut down may provoke wide-scale political backlash.

The same Washington Post article uncovered that federal agencies are operating in limbo as the budget impasse drags on: 

The budget impasse hasn't shut down the government -- at least not yet. But it has slowed down or stopped a lot of its parts.

The fact is, though, there is a far preferable alternative that would allow both sides to win something important and would benefit the nation enormously.

The budget battle has morphed into more a struggle over policy change through appropriations riders than a battle over how much money will be cut from the budget during the rest of this fiscal year. In the House, Republicans are pushing a variety of de-funding riders that would change policy by denying spending authority. The four most important among them are defunding National Public Radio, defunding EPA's ability to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, defunding Planned Parenthood, and repealing existing and denying new spending authority for implementation of ObamaCare. 

There is less zeal for attaching these riders in the Senate. However, in the Senate, Republicans are unanimously behind what might be called the Debt Limit Restoration Rider, which is not being pushed in the House. This amendment championed by Senators Toomey, Vitter and DeMint would prioritize spending for debt service and Social Security payments and thus guarantee that funds are available for both in the event the debt ceiling is reached and the federal government is precluded from borrowing more money. Senate Republicans voted unanimously to attach this rider to the Continuing Resolution.

Of these five riders, the debt-limit restoration provision is clearly the most important, not only because it is the only one of the riders with a real chance of surviving in a comprehensive CR this year but also because it would provide for an orderly and rational reduction of federal spending and the deficit in years to come. It is the rider on the margin, which would provide Archimedean leverage in the budget process to reduce federal spending. By removing the specter of a default on the national debt or Social Security in the event the debt limit is reached, this rider would eliminate the ability of big-spenders to hold markets and seniors hostage to raising the congressional credit-card limit time and again.

Hence, by transforming the debt limit into a real budget constraint, the debt limit would become the anvil against which federal spending reductions were wrought. Under a hard budget constraint defined by the debt limit, Congress would lock itself into a predetermined amount of spending reductions by first deciding how much less than the projected deficit it decided to raise the debt ceiling. This alteration in the congressional budget process would transform the debt limit from a paper ceiling that is routinely ripped up at will into a real, hard budget constraint under which Congress would have to allocate spending. In the process, it also would provide a framework in which to consider the policy changes sought by the Big Four riders.

Finally, the debt limit restoration provision would be very attractive to Senate Majority Leader Reid in his struggle to keep on the reservation potential Democrat renegades who are being tempted to use Republicans as their cat's paw to cut Social Security benefits. It's a deal the Majority Leader could not refuse.

To make this work, House Republicans must finally come to the realization that their lone House majority is insufficient to force the Senate and the president to accept any of their Big Four riders. These riders are, as the Post points out, deal-breakers for the Democrats, and threatening to shut the government down over them is like threatening to shoot yourself in the head if you don't get your way. 

Republicans also must find the wisdom and courage to coalesce around a deal breaker of their own, which cannot be one among the Democrats' deal breakers and also must receive unanimous backing by every Republican in both Houses. The only rider in the mix that can satisfy both conditions is the Vitter/DeMint/Toomey debt-limit restoration rider.

So, here's the deal. House Speaker Boehner finds a House sponsor for the Vitter/DeMint/Toomey debt-limit restoration amendment and enlarges the class of Big Riders from four to five in the House. He then lets Senate Majority Leader Reid know the House intends to pass all five of its Big Riders but they all will be subject to negotiation in the House-Senate Conference Committee on the bill.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader McConnell lets Majority Leader Reid know Republicans will demand another vote on the Vitter/DeMint/Toomey debt-limit amendment to the CR when it comes to the Senate floor. Further, McConnell tells Reid that even if that amendment fails on the Senate floor, Republican conferees nevertheless will support Democrat conferees in dropping four of House's five Big Riders if Senate Democrat conferees in turn support the House's debt limit restoration rider. 

In Conference, the House recedes to the Senate position on the original Big Four House riders (i.e., strips them from the bill) while the Senate recedes, if necessary, to the House position on the debt-limit rider, keeping it in the bill.

Go ahead, Republicans, offer Democrats this deal they can't refuse.

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About the Author
Lawrence A. Hunter is president of the Alliance for Retirement Prosperity.