The morning papers on Saturday brought news of a new stratagem by House Republicans to gain a bit of leverage on, or freedom of maneuver around, the debt ceiling issue despite the limitations imposed by the vox populi in the recent election.
“House GOP alters strategy in battle over debt ceiling,” was the hard copy headline in the Washington Post. The Wall Street Journal’s sub-heading was a bit more illuminating: “Republican Plan Would Offer Three-Month Reprieve; Leaders Vow to Fight for Spending Cuts Elsewhere.”
In essence, the GOP caucus will extend the debt ceiling deadline until April at which time the matter of the sequestration, which will impose substantial cuts on both domestic and defense spending, comes up on the calendar along with the expiration of budget or spending authority for the government.
It is unclear where this strategy is going, but it is an improvement over previous kamikaze ideas, such as just saying “No” to raising the debt ceiling, which were being bandied about by some of the more exotic members of the caucus. An argument could be made that, politically, the Republicans would be better off completely severing the debate over spending cuts, entitlements and tax reform from the “lose-lose” issue of the debt ceiling. That said, this new approach seems to be by-product of the leadership, credibility and prudence of House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI).
Prudence, prudentia in the Latin, is a virtue with a long and noble lineage extending back to pagan philosophers. It is one of the Cardinal virtues. St. Thomas Aquinas ranked it first since it relates to the intellect. It can be characterized as “right reason applied to practice” (recta ratio agibilium). Unlike a theological virtue such as hope or love, which are not derived from reason, only from revelation, Cardinal virtues are accessible to all people through the exercise of their reason. This is so even if it seems to be in short supply in the everyday world of human affairs, especially in Washington, D.C.
Prudence has gotten a bum rap in modern times since it is usually associated with tentativeness, caution, or indecision as in “Wouldn’t be prudent” (apologies to Dana Carvey).
So it is reassuring that Paul Ryan stepped forward to counsel his caucus on how to approach the intertwined issues of the debt ceiling, sequestration, and the overall budget without self-immolating themselves. He proposed this short-term extension of the debt ceiling limit in order to align the discussion of that matter with those relating to the upcoming sequestration and the regular budget process coming in March.
The GOP House members were camped out in historic Williamsburg, Virginia, to rest, regroup, and strategize for the next session. They had to struggle with the hard reality that they are boxed in by a Democratic President and Senate as was painfully evident in the recent showdown on the “fiscal cliff.” While they may take some solace in making permanent the Bush-era tax rates, for all but the wealthiest Americans, there was retrograde movement on spending and tax reform thanks to the perfidious Senate whose members still have a hankerin’ for pork and rent-seeking.
Paul Ryan cannot be accused of tentativeness, excessive cautiousness, or indecision. He is the only elected official in the House, Senate, or White House who has had the knowledge, expertise, and fortitude (another Cardinal virtue!) to propose a systemic solution to the multi-faceted Death Star looming over future generations of Americans -- Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and interest on the debt -- all of which will gobble up the lion’s share of the federal budget or necessitate tax increases that would make even a French politician shudder. Moreover, his legislation was supported by almost the entire caucus most of whom survived the 2012 election and lived to tell the tale.
Reports coming out of Williamsburg indicated that Ryan was working his colleagues hard: “We’re discussing the possible virtue of a short-term debt limit extension so that we have a better chance of getting the Senate and the White House involved in discussions this March.”
Besides allowing time for serious negotiations over spending levels, sequestration, and the overall budget for the federal government, the extension would broaden the discussion to things which must be dealt with, e.g., the sequestration, while reducing the saliency of the debt ceiling as a political issue. Let’s face it: When discussing shutting down the government, Republicans are at great risk and playing defense. When discussing budget-cutting or tax reform, they are on offense.
“We think the worst thing for the economy is for this Congress and this administration to do nothing to get debt and deficits under control,” said Ryan.
Numerous defense experts say that automatic budget sequestration, equal parts domestic cuts and defense cuts, would have devastating effects. They say we should negotiate a shifting of cuts to other non-defense budget items. Given that national defense is one of the primary constitutional functions of the federal government, it is certainly worth a shot. But I am not holding my breath. It will be difficult to come up with additional spending cuts to compensate for restoring defense spending in the budget. Democrats will not allow that. Would Republicans then give defense a pass on the sequestration at the risk of undercutting their budget cutting street cred? The hard truth is this: if you take several decades building a European-style welfare state -- with bipartisan support -- you are going to wind up with a European-style defense budget at some point. It is axiomatic. We may be at that point now.
Ryan the Prudent worked hard to educate the House GOP, most notably freshmen, on the various moving parts of the budget process and what can or cannot be done from a very narrow power base in the House of Representatives. “Paul Ryan Warns Republicans To Temper Expectations,” was the headline on Buzzfeed, which quoted Ryan as saying, “I think what matters most is that people have a very clear view of what’s coming, so that there are no surprises… that means setting expectations accordingly, so that we move forward on a unified basis.”
Yes, that pesky separation of powers thing can be a real obstacle. Regarding the debt ceiling limit, the only leverage the Republicans have, i.e., shutting down the government, is really no leverage at all. There are no hostages to shoot, just themselves.
Ryan’s idea is the best one available to the GOP in the present circumstances.
“Our goal is to make sure our members understand all the deadlines that are coming, all the consequences of those deadlines that are coming, in order so that we can make a better-informed decision about how to move, how to proceed,” said Ryan.
“Out of that we hope to achieve consensus on a plan to proceed so that we can make progress on controlling spending and deficits and debt,” he said.
“We also have to recognize the realities of the divided government that we have,” Ryan said.
That is a great example of Midwestern understatement. The President, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid haven’t the slightest interest in controlling spending, deficits, debt, and cascading entitlement obligations. If this continues to be the case, the likely outcome is that the debt ceiling is raised, sequestration works the Congress’s will on the entire discretionary budget (domestic and defense), but entitlements are left untouched by reform or rational restructuring. Don’t even think about tax reform.
Elections, as they say, have consequences. We are living with them now.