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Boehner's Double-Dealing on the Debt Ceiling

April 11, 2011

When George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office, Republican majorities in Congress voted seven times to increase the U.S. debt ceiling. That recent history, combined with the inconvenient truth that the national debt tripled under Ronald Reagan and doubled again under Bush, may have prompted then Minority Leader John Boehner to warn his GOP colleagues in November that "We're going to have to deal with it as adults." But emboldened by his victory in Friday's budget showdown, Speaker Boehner is now holding the debt ceiling and the U.S. economy hostage, claiming Republicans won't "roll over" and give President Obama "a clean bill."
In the wake of the Republicans' overwhelming triumph at the polls last fall, Speaker-to-be Boehner was his party's voice of reason on the debt ceiling. As the Wall Street Journal reported on November 18 ("Boehner Warns GOP on Debt Ceiling"), Boehner pressed his newly enlarged Republican caucus on the need to raise the debt ceiling and so protect the full faith and credit of the United States.

"I've made it pretty clear to them that as we get into next year, it's pretty clear that Congress is going to have to deal with this," Mr. Boehner, who is slated to become House speaker in January, told reporters.
"We're going to have to deal with it as adults," he said, in what apparently are his most explicit comments to date. "Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part."
If an increase in the current debt limit of $14.3 trillion does not pass, it would suggest the country may not meet its obligations and would shake the financial system. It could rock the bond market, rattle the dollar and scare away foreign buyers of U.S. debt.

Which is exactly right. The specter of a global financial cataclysm caused by the default of the United States caused most sentient mammals to denounce that prospect as "insanity" (Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee), resulting in "severe harm" (McCain economic adviser Mark Zandi), "financial collapse and calamity throughout the world" (Senator Lindsey Graham) and "you can't not raise the debt ceiling" (House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan). In January, Boehner acknowledged as much:

"That would be a financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy. Remember, the American people on election day said, 'we want to cut spending and we want to create jobs.' And you can't create jobs if you default on the federal debt."

But under constant pressure from Tea Party Republicans, the man who promised an "adult conversation" on spending chose political power over the national interest. Boehner quickly backed down on his proposed $35 billion in spending cuts, yielding to Tea Party demands for the $61 billion package of reductions which later passed the House. And by January, Boehner was insisting President Obama would have to make concessions to Republicans on the debt ceiling that George W. Bush, needless to say, never faced:

The American people will not stand for such an increase unless it is accompanied by meaningful action by the President and Congress to cut spending and end the job-killing spending binge in Washington. While America cannot default on its debt, we also cannot continue to borrow recklessly, dig ourselves deeper into this hole, and mortgage the future of our children and grandchildren. Spending cuts - and reforming a broken budget process - are top priorities for the American people and for the new majority in the House this year, and it is essential that the President and Democrats in Congress work with us in that effort.

Fresh off his budget beatdown this weekend, a newly confident Speaker Boehner made abundantly clear he would join the hardliners in the House and Senate holding the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling hostage. As Politico reported, Boehner set out to prove "there's no daylight between the tea party and me":

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), fresh off the budget talks, told donors this weekend that if Obama wants an up or down vote on the debt ceiling he's not going to get it.
"The president says I want you to send me a clean bill," Boehner said. "Well guess what, Mr. President, not a chance you're going to get a clean bill."
"There will not be an increase in the debt limit without something really, really big attached to it," he continued in a clip of his remarks at a fundraiser that was played during "Face the Nation."

Last month, Senate Minority Mitch McConnell explained what that really, really big something attached to a debt ceiling bill will be. McConnell warned that "not a single one of the 47 Republicans will vote to raise the debt ceiling unless it includes with it some credible effort to do something about our debt," including a vote on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. McConnell then upped the ante:

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell warned on Friday that GOP senators will not vote to increase the government's borrowing limit unless President Barack Obama agrees to rein in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, laying down a high-stakes marker just weeks before the debt ceiling is reached.

Boehner's gambit comes just weeks after Congressional Republicans secured an $800 billion two-year tax cut extension, including a $140 for the richest Americans. Today, Boehner praised Paul Ryan's GOP budget plan unveiled which would not only make the Bush tax cuts permanent, but cuts over $4 trillion in spending over the next decade to pay for them.
Of course, John Boehner has long been one of the leading propagators of the Republican myth that tax cuts pay for themselves. As The Hill reported last June:

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thursday defended tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush, saying they did not lead to the deficit that currently confronts the country.
"It's not the marginal tax rates ... that's not what led to the budget deficit," he told reporters, adding, "The revenue problem we have today is a result of what happened in the economic collapse some 18 months ago."

As it turns out, not so much.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities demolished the mythology promoted by President Bush ("You cut taxes and the tax revenues increase") and the usual suspects on the right. CBPP found that Bush tax cuts accounted for almost half of the mushrooming deficits during his tenure:

And as another CBPP analysis revealed, over the next 10 years, the Bush tax cuts if made permanent would contribute more to the U.S. budget deficit than the Obama stimulus, the TARP program, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and revenue lost to the recession put together.

When George W. Bush was President, Republicans voted to fight two unfunded wars whose ultimate cost will top $3 trillion. For the first time in modern American history, a U.S. president cut taxes during war-time. To secure victory in the 2004 elections, the GOP enacted - but did not pay for - the $550 billion Medicare prescription drug benefit. In the fall of 2008, Bush pushed the $700 billion TARP program.
And John Boehner voted for all of it.
Looking back on the Bush years in 2009, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch explained, "It was standard practice not to pay for things." Put another way, as Dick Cheney did in 2002, "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter."
Not that is, John Boehner and his allies now insist, unless 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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