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Boehner, Cantor and McConnell Raised Debt Ceiling by $800 Billion to Pay for Health Care Costs

September 11, 2013

With the federal government set to hit the limit of its borrowing authority as early as mid-October, Republicans are once again threatening to hold the debt ceiling hostage. As the National Review described the latest ransom demand from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, "To increase the debt ceiling, Cantor said, Republicans will demand a one-year delay to Obamacare."
Sadly for the GOP obstructionists promising to trigger a U.S. default and a global economic catastrophe, the Republicans' debt limit blackmail is more than a little ironic. After all, with $2.5 trillion in reductions already in place for the next decade, the U.S national debt has stabilized, with the CBO lowering its 2013 deficit forecast to half the level Barack Obama faced when he first took the oath of office in 2009. And as the nonpartisan agency has repeatedly concluded, the Affordable Care Act will reduce the U.S. national debt by $24 billion next year and $109 billion over the next decade. More hypocritical still, in the fall of 2004 the current GOP leadership team of Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Eric Cantor all voted to give President Bush a "clean" debt ceiling increase of $800 billion to cover the initial costs of the unfunded Medicare prescription drug program.

As you may recall, Republican Ronald Reagan tripled the national debt during his eight years in office, with George W. Bush nearly doubling it again during his tenure. That hemorrhaging of red ink from the U.S. Treasury was due not just to the costs of the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but to the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 that continue to drain Uncle Sam's coffers. McConnell, Boehner and Cantor voted for all of it. But in December 2003, they added another budget-buster to the ledger, the Medicare prescription drug benefit. And, as I noted previously, it was a doozy:

Within two months of signing the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) into law, President Bush quietly informed Congress that the true cost of the program would be $550 billion, not $395 billion, over the next decade. When Medicare actuary Richard Foster sought to present the true price tag to Congress in late 2003, then agency chief Thomas Scully threatened to fire him. By the time the program was launched in 2006, the estimated 10 year price tag for the Medicare prescription plan had increased to $720 billion.

With war costs mounting and the initial spending for the Medicare drug discount card program already underway, President Bush and his GOP allies had to raise the debt ceiling to pay the bills Uncle Sam had already incurred. The "clean" debt ceiling hike the Republicans passed without pre-conditions was never in danger of failing; the only question was the timing. As the New York Times recounted on November 17, 2004, they waited until Bush's reelection was safely secured:

Faced with the prospect of a government unable to pay its bills, the Senate voted on Wednesday to raise the federal debt limit by $800 billion.
Though an increase in the debt ceiling was never in doubt, Republican leaders in both houses of Congress postponed action on it last month, until after the elections, to deprive Democrats of a chance to accuse them of fiscal irresponsibility.

Of course, there was no talk of cutting entitlement spending from the GOP or ultimatums from the Democratic minority. As Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) later explained, Bush's free ride on the debt ceiling due in part to his unfunded drug plan for 43 million seniors was just business as usual for Republicans:

"It was standard practice not to pay for things."

Eric Cantor's predecessor Tom Delay put it this way:

"We must forget about ideological absolutes."

Until, that is, a Democrat wins the White House.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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