Republicans announce plans for temporary debt ceiling increase

Politico reports on the latest symbolic gesture of fiscal responsibility from the only people in Washington who still care about it:

House Republicans will vote next week on a bill that would raise the nation’s debt ceiling for three months and attach a provision that would stop pay for members of Congress if the Senate doesn’t pass a budget, GOP officials said Friday.

It’s an attempt to force the Senate to lay out a spending plan, but is sure to go nowhere in the Democratic controlled upper chamber.

This is not a final solution to the debt ceiling battle, or anything close. Lifting the nation’s borrowing cap, which must be done by the end of February or March, will be a lengthy battle between House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the White House.

This strategy — trying to shift blame to the Senate — is a tried and true House GOP tactic. And it also falls in line with a new mantra leadership has been trying to instill in its membership: we do not control Washington, and cannot force the president’s hand.

Breaking news: House Republicans ask Democrats to consider obeying the law, in exchange for a huge pile of new debt; Democrats refuse, citing the absence of any serious political obstacle to their ambitions.  The 1974 Congressional Budget Act has been successfully ignored since 2009; it’s a dead letter.

House Budget Committee chair and 2012 vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan is still bravely trying to perform CPR, though:

“I stand in strong support of the agreement reached by my colleagues today. Our conference has united around a common-sense proposal. It rests on the recognition that our challenge is twofold: We have to pay our bills today, and we have to make sure we can pay our bills tomorrow. To achieve both ends, we must cut spending and budget responsibly.

“Since taking the majority, House Republicans have done their job. We’ve passed a budget that promotes economic growth and gets spending under control. But for nearly four years, Senate Democrats have refused to pass a budget. Today’s agreement will hold the Senate accountable for this legal and moral failure. Just as April 15 is tax day for American families, it is budget day for Congress. Unless the Senate acts, there will be no consideration of a long-term debt-ceiling increase. I look forward to working with my colleagues—in both houses and in both parties—on this vital issue.”

The great cause of conservatism used to be limited government, but now we’d just be happy to have lawful government.

Lately there has been increased muttering from both congressional Republicans, and some quarters of the punditocracy, that a debt-ceiling increase is inevitable, so there’s no point in fighting over it.  Better ground for the battle of fiscal responsibility and economic freedom is sought, even though the whole point of having a debt ceiling is to create the ideal ground for such a battle.  This is supposed to be a moment when the public says, “Holy cow!  They just raised the debt ceiling a little while ago, and now they have to do it again?  Washington is out of control!”

Instead, debt ceiling crashes have become acts of ritual submission for the fiscally responsible.  They’re supposed to take a knee and quietly accept the imperative for unsustainable government expansion.  If they say one damned word, they’ll be blamed for crashing the markets, ruining America’s debt limit, halting Social Security checks, cutting of military payroll, and causing children to explode.  The flip side of this argument is not explored: if we say that government must be allowed to spiral trillions of dollars further into debt without the slightest hesitation, or else America will collapse, we are saying that America has become hopelessly addicted to both central control and unsustainable promises.  Obama’s false talking point that debt ceiling increases represent “paying bills we’ve already racked up” should be one of the most devastating indictments of his ideology imaginable; instead, it’s taken as an argument in favor of piling up the next set of bills that the next victims of the vampire State will be told they have no choice but to honor.

That’s the kind of circular thinking Republicans need to short-circuit, and they simply don’t have many opportunities to get the attention of the American public, outside of these debt-ceiling dramas.  If they don’t hold true to their believe in economic liberty, fiscal responsibility, and the importance of private-sector growth at a moment like this, why should the public take them seriously later?

Threatening the paychecks of congressional representatives if they fail to pass a budget is thinking too small, although they’re quite right about the importance of insisting that Washington pass a budget.  A document that proposes spending 40 percent more money than the government collects is not a “budget.”  I would suggest they propose legislation to force something closer to a balanced budget, submitted in a timely manner, and stipulate that every member of a Congress that breaks the law becomes automatically ineligible to stand for re-election.  If you can’t fulfill your basic duties as a public servant, you have no business being there.

Only by thinking big can the case be brought to the public, in a way that makes Democrats look like the unreasonable extremists.  Force them to explain to Mom and Pop America why they can’t possibly submit any sort of written plan for the $3.6 trillion they want to spend.  Make them explain why Washington can’t scrape by with only, say, $100 billion in deficits per year, starting right away.  Make the Democrats inform the Sainted Middle Class about how much they would be expected to pay in taxes, if the budget is not balanced through spending cuts.  Make them review and defend every foolish and wasteful excess in the budget they say cannot be trimmed.

Keith Hennessey of the Wall Street Journal had an interesting idea for a “bargain” that could be placed before President Obama, after making him reject the exchange of spending cuts for a debt ceiling increase:

That brings us to step two, which is for congressional Republicans to offer Mr. Obama a choice. He can have a long-term debt-limit increase if he agrees to cut spending, or he can have repeated, short-term increases without spending cuts. If the president continues to dodge the country’s long-term spending problem, the solution is to force him to ask Congress every few months to give him the authority to borrow more while facing questions about why he refuses to restrain spending.

Step Three would then involve making those short-term increases as painful as possible for Democrats to extract.  “It’s hard to overstate how much members of Congress in both parties hate to vote for a debt-limit increase, and how entitled to ducking the vote House Democrats feel because they’re in the minority,” Hennessey writes.  “The point of this strategy is to force Democrats to take responsibility for more borrowing without spending cuts, over and over again.”

The idea is to force Obama to choose the more irresponsible course, in public, while making responsibility as reasonable and obvious to the public as possible.  The problem to date has been the public’s general lack of interest in budget details.  They’re not likely to pay a lot of attention to Washington’s impending fiscal collapse until they’re right in the middle of it.  But they do have some common-sense notions about paying your bills, honoring your commitments, and handling public money responsibly.  You can tell those impulses still exist, because Obama frequently appeals to them.  He’s always trying to co-opt the language of responsibility.  It should be much harder for him to steal.