This doesn’t just make perfect sense; it’s also exactly how past presidents and Congresses have viewed previous debt-limit debates — as a perfect opportunity to reform the habits that are causing the debt. Over the past three decades, in fact, U.S. presidents and lawmakers from both parties have routinely used the debt-limit debate to reform government spending. In 1985, with the debt at $1.8 trillion, Congress passed the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, which found cuts to offset that year’s $200 billion deficit and set yearly deficit targets going forward. Since then, Congress has linked debt-limit increases to spending cuts six more times, including in 2011, when this president agreed to $2.1 trillion in cuts as part of the Budget Control Act.
So President Obama may not want to cut spending as part of the upcoming debt-limit debate, but history shows that deficit-reduction measures tied to debt-ceiling increases are about as standard in Washington as the Cherry Blossom Festival. And with the federal debt now at a mind-numbing $16.4 trillion, it’s a debate the president will have whether he wants to or not.
For too long, the president and his congressional allies have been content to impose their legislative will through hurried, last-minute deals that keep public scrutiny and tough votes to a minimum. As a result, our fiscal problems remain unaddressed, and the prospect of a European-style economic calamity here in the U.S. becomes likelier every day. This is why Republicans have insisted that any request to raise the federal debt limit be accompanied by serious reforms — because it’s the only way we’ll solve the problem.
According to the budget charts that members of both parties see on a daily basis, federal revenue remains flat in the years ahead, even after the president’s long-sought tax hike on “the rich” and the expiration of the payroll-tax holiday. Federal spending, meanwhile, breaks away like a fighter jet. The bottom line: Any debate about revenue is an irrelevant distraction from the debate we need to have about spending, since no reasonable level of taxation could solve Washington’s spending problem.
Sadly, the obstacles to meaningful reform aren’t political, they’re ideological. A recent Battleground Poll found that three out of four voters support across-the-board cuts to government spending. Yet Washington Democrats — under pressure from their favored interest groups — continue to adhere to an outdated ideology that says every penny of revenue that Washington ever got its hands on is sacrosanct. This is why Democrats have spent four years ducking their responsibility to pass budgets and appropriations bills, and it’s also why the president and his allies are now working overtime not to solve our debt crisis but on finding new and increasingly bizarre ways to avoid dealing with it.
This is madness. Democrats may believe the November election validated their do-nothing strategy of the past four years, but the American people are finally catching on to the fact that many of those they elected to lead our nation are busy running from their responsibilities instead — and that they seem to be blindly following a president who has turned avoiding responsibility into an art form. The good news is that many of the solutions to our fiscal problems are not that difficult to achieve. We know what reforms we need to make, and we know how to make them. But we will only succeed once those in the avoidance camp admit that tax hikes aren’t the answer.
The president and his allies need to get serious about spending, and the debt-limit debate is the perfect time for it. In the coming weeks, both sides could quickly agree on many reforms that the public would support. Some — like requiring wealthy retirees to pay more for Medicare, or changing how federal benefits are adjusted for inflation — are ideas President Obama has already endorsed. Rather than having another conversation about these things, he should show the kind of leadership the moment calls for and simply sign these and other reforms into law.
The road to success is in sight, and the American people shouldn’t have to wait another day for us to walk it.
What is needed is some political courage, and the willingness of our often reluctant president to lead.