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The Republicans' Constitutional Con Job

July 15, 2011

As the GOP hostage-taking drama over raising the debt limit appears headed towards a final showdown, Republican Congressmen, Senators and presidential candidates alike are pushing the "Cut, Cap and Balance" pledge. While Mitch McConnell's "Plan B" would see Republicans yield on boosting the $14.3 trillion debt limit now in exchange for a mechanism to gut entitlements later, both houses would still vote on a constitutional amendment requiring the federal government to balance the budget. Of course, that balanced budget amendment isn't merely terrible public policy. As it turns out, under its terms the Ryan budget backed by 235 House Republicans and 40 GOP Senators would be unconstitutional.
Back in March, Senate Minority Leader McConnell added a balanced budget amendment to his list of demands for increasing the U.S debt ceiling. But now under fire from GOP hardliners like Jim Demint and Mike Lee, McConnell this week belatedly signed on to co-sponsor their Cut, Cap and Balance Act. As he explained his support:

"The time has come for a balanced budget amendment that forces Washington to balance its books. If these debt negotiations have convinced us of anything, it's that we can't leave it to politicians in Washington to make the difficult decisions that they need to get our fiscal house in order. The balanced budget amendment will do that for them. Now is the moment. No more games. No more gimmicks. The Constitution must be amended to keep the government in check. We've tried persuasion. We've tried negotiations. We're tried elections. Nothing has worked."

Leave aside for the moment that Ronald Reagan tripled the national debt and George W. Bush nearly doubled it. Forget also that the Bush tax cuts were the biggest driver of debt over the past decade, and if made permanent, would be continue to be so over the next. Ignore for now that Republican majorities voted seven times to raise the debt ceiling under President Bush and the current GOP leadership team voted a combined 19 times to bump the debt limit $4 trillion during his tenure. You should also look away from the two unfunded wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the budget-busting Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 and the Medicare prescription drug program because, after all, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell voted for all of it.
Instead, focus on what the Cut, Cap and Balance Act says Republicans must do and what they just voted not to.
As The Hill reported, different House and Senate versions of the balanced budget amendment are set to come up for a vote next week:

The balanced-budget amendment needs a two-thirds vote in each chamber and cannot pass without at least 48 Democrats in the House. It is much more stringent than a balanced-budget amendment from the 1990s in that it caps spending at 18 percent of GDP and requires a two-thirds vote to raise taxes.

Neither version will pass. But if it did and somehow managed to get ratified in the states, a balanced budget amendment would present almost as many problems for Republicans as for Democrats trying to protect vital services from the draconian spending cuts it would require.

It's not just that outlays by the federal government haven't been as low as 18% of GDP since 1966. (That's why the Simpson-Bowles Commission created by President Obama and opposed by Senate Republicans set a 21% target.) As it turns out, the 98% of Republicans in Congress voted for Paul Ryan's budget plan would fail their own Cut, Cap and Balance test. As Ezra Klein explained in April:

House Republicans voted to make the Ryan budget law. But the Ryan budget includes $6 trillion in new debt over the next 10 years, which means that to become law, the Ryan budget would require a substantial increase in the debt ceiling. But before the Republicans agree to increase the debt ceiling so that the budget they passed can become law, Republicans are demanding the passage of either a balanced budget amendment that would make the Ryan budget unconstitutional or a spending cap that the Ryan budget would, in certain years (and if you're using more realistic numbers, in all years), exceed.

Largely overlooked in the media coverage of the Republican debt ceiling hostage drama is this: those 235 House Republicans and 40 GOP Senators who supported Paul Ryan's 2012 budget bill voted to add $6 trillion to the U.S. national debt over the next decade. And that means, as Speaker John Boehner acknowledged, Republicans now and in the future would have to increase the debt ceiling - repeatedly.

One of the 25 or so leaders, all from Boehner's district, asked him if Republicans would raise America's $14.3 trillion debt limit.
According to half a dozen attendees interviewed by Reuters, the most powerful Republican in Washington said "yes."
"And we're going to have to raise it again in the future," he added. With the mass retirement of America's Baby Boomers, he explained, it would take 20 years to balance the U.S. budget and 30 years after that to erase the nation's huge fiscal deficit.

Despite the best efforts of the GOP's loud legion of default deniers (who number at least 60 GOP Congressmen who Speaker Boehner said "won't vote to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances"), some kind of debt ceiling deal seems likely. That doesn't mean Republicans won't try their damnedest to create tests real and symbolic to cap spending and prevent future tax increases. As it turns out, those are tests they themselves are certain to fail.
But then again, for Republicans there are only two certainties in life: debt and tax cuts.


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

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