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Boehner Should Pass Same Clean Debt Ceiling Bill He Gave Bush in 2004

September 27, 2013

Unless Congress raises the debt ceiling by October 17, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew warned this week, the federal government will be unable to pay its bills. But while some Republicans like Rep. John Fleming (R-FL) responded, "I don't think we should run government based on economists' predictions," House Speaker John Boehner knows all too well what would ensue if Uncle Sam's borrowing authority is not increased:

"That would be a financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy."

Which is why John Boehner should push his Republican colleagues to pass a "clean" debt ceiling bill right now. After all, Boehner along with his lieutenant Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell didn't just vote for all seven debt limit hikes while President George W. Bush was nearly doubling the national debt. In November 2004, Boehner, Cantor and McConnell sent the White House an $800 billion debt ceiling increase with no strings attached to help pay for Bush's new--and unfunded--Medicare Part D prescription drug program.

In the spring of 2011, the newly minted Speaker Boehner told a GOP fundraising event, "There will not be an increase in the debt limit without something really, really big attached to it." He warned President Obama:

"The president says I want you to send me a clean bill. Well guess what, Mr. President, not a chance you're going to get a clean bill."

Of course, a clean bill is exactly what John Boehner and his colleagues gave Republican President George W. Bush in November 2004. That October, Bush called for his fourth hike in the nation's borrowing authority. His Treasury Secretary John Snow warned, "Given current projections, it is imperative that the Congress take action to increase the debt limit by mid-November," adding that his arsenal of fiscal tools, including tapping money intended for the civil service retirement fund, "will be exhausted."
But as the New York Times explained on November 17, 2004, Bush had to wait for his debt ceiling increase for a very simple reason:

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.

The ironies in that 2004 debt limit boost didn't end there. As it turned out, John Boehner along with leaders McConnell and Cantor needed to enable President Bush to borrow more money to pay for a massive new health care program.
In December 2003, they added another budget-buster to Bush's 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.

Ultimately, the costs of the initially unpopular Part D program came in closer to the original forecast. But as Ezra Klein detailed, that was primarily due to the greater use of generic drugs and the lower rate (77 percent versus 93 percent) of enrollment by America's 43 million Medicare recipients. Regardless, Bush, Boehner and company never raised a single penny of new revenue to fund a program that needlessly enriched private insurers and pharmaceutical firms at Uncle Sam's expense. Unlike the fully-funded Affordable Care Act now, it all went on America's credit card. As Senator Orrin Hatch acknowledged in 2009:

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

It has also been standard practice to raise the debt ceiling, something both parties have routinely done a combined 42 times since 1980. With the dramatic improvement in the near-and-mid-term debt forecast and the federal government's annual deficits plummeting to half the level Barack Obama inherited when he first took the oath of office in January 2009, there is no reason to attach any conditions a debt ceiling hike. Speaker Boehner had it exactly right in March when he acknowledged:

"We have no immediate debt crisis."

And as Boehner's budget man Paul Ryan admitted two years ago, "You can't not raise the debt ceiling."
Unless, Republicans now insist, a Democrat is in 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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