At close to midnight Monday, Republican leadership in Congress – outgoing House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – dropped a bomb on members of their respective chambers: a budget bill secretly negotiated with the Obama White House. Without consulting GOP representatives elected on a promise of stopping the Obama agenda, the deal provides yet another huge increase in the debt ceiling – i.e., the bill to be presented to our children and grandchildren for our refusal to live within our unprecedented means today – and further busting the caps from the 2011 budget deal.
CNN reports that GOP leaders will attempt to ram the deal through as early as tomorrow (Wednesday).
Of course, by giving the president the spending and borrowing authority he wants, Republicans forfeit the leverage to demand concessions from him in policy battles over the final 15 months of his term. Obama gets a green light and a blank check.
Republican voters get yet another demonstration that electing Republicans yields Washington As Usual.
Rep. Paul Ryan says the deal “stinks” and ripped the way it was negotiated. But we’ve learned with Ryan and his cohort to ignore what they say – and the indignation with which they say it – and watch what they do. What Ryan will do is … nothing. He is a key GOP leadership figure, chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and Boehner’s heir apparent. In fact, despite some lingering conservative opposition, Republicans are expected to select him as speaker tomorrow morning – shortly before Boehner rushes through the budget deal. Ryan wants the deal done, but on Boehner’s watch. He could scuttle the deal by opposing it … but he won’t. Bank on it.
Congressional Democrats and the White House are enthusiastically praising the budget deal as a victory over conservatives. GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy – fresh from clueless comments that undermined the Benghazi investigation and cost him the speakership – is crowing that the budget deal “will be a big bipartisan vote” (translation: Democrats dig the bill, so GOP leaders can thumb their noses at conservative opposition).
Ryan, hoping to hold conservative support for his speakership bid, took the opposite tack, vowing that under his “new management, we are not going to do business like this.”
That put me in mind of 2010, when Beltway Republicans, sounding just like Ryan, inveighed against Democrat tactics – the very tactics they themselves are employing. Back then, they, too, vowed that, if voters put them in charge, under their new management, they would not do business like this.
The commitment was peddled in a glossy pamphlet Republican leadership titled A Pledge to America. The Pledge is festooned with pictures of Boehner, Ryan, McCarthy, and other GOP notables sold to the public as the steely-spine leaders who would make good on it. They begin by decrying:
An unchecked executive, a compliant legislature, and an overreaching judiciary have combined to thwart the will of the people and overturn their votes and their values, striking down long- standing laws and institutions and scorning the deepest beliefs of the American people.
An arrogant and out-of-touch government of self-appointed elites makes decisions, issues mandates, and enacts laws without accepting or requesting the input of the many. Rising joblessness, crushing debt, and a polarizing political environment are fraying the bonds among our people and blurring our sense of national purpose.
If voters put them in charge, Republicans promised to do several things to address this crisis. For one thing, they said they had “A Plan to Reform Congress and Restore Trust.” They committed to change the abuses of Democratic leadership, who had “consolidated authority, abusing the letter and spirit of the House rules to get the outcome desired, while ignoring voices of the American people, the minority, and even dissenters within [its] own party.”
Yup. It’s especially hard today not to snicker and boil over their promise that complex, voluminous bills of great consequence would no longer be dumped on members, who would be given no meaningful opportunity to read the legislation, much less propose changes, before votes were scheduled to occur hours later. This “top-down way of governing is outdated and just plain backwards,” Republicans thundered. They vowed to end it:
We recognize that if we are truly committed to addressing the American people’s highest priorites, the House of Representatives must operate differently – differently from the way the Democrats do now, and differently from the way Republicans did in the past. Change begins at home.
What kind of change? A new “Read the Bill” requirement would be imposed:
We will ensure that bills are debated and discussed in the public square by publishing the text online for at least three days before coming up for a vote in the House of Representatives. No more hiding legislative language from the minority party, opponents, and the public. Legislation should be understood by all interested parties before it is voted on.
And what would be in those bills that everyone would purportedly get a chance to read and propose to amend under GOP stewardship? Republicans said the bills would be guided by their “Plan to Stop Out of Control Spending and Reduce the Size of Government.”
No don’t laugh. They actually said this:
Washington’s out-of-control spending spree needs no introduction. Our debt is now on track to exceed the size of our economy in the next two years. The lack of a credible plan to pay this debt back causes anxiety among consumers and uncertainty for investors and employers.
It isn’t just that we need to stop spending so much – we need to stop spending so irrationally. The spending process in Washington is designed to make it easy to increase spending and raise taxes and difficult to cut spending and lower taxes. The deck is stacked against limited government and fiscal responsibility. This must stop…
Over the past three years, non-security discretionary spending (the spending that is approved each year by Congress outside of the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Veterans Affairs) has increased a staggering 88 percent. As a result, we now borrow 41 cents of every dollar we spend, much of it from foreign countries, including China, and leave the bill to our kids and grandkids….
Economists have warned that all this borrowing runs the risk of causing a damaging spike in interest rates, which would cripple job creation. If our economy remains debt-driven, it will not be in a position to support a lasting economic recovery.
So why not add more trillions in debt, right?
In their 2010 Pledge, Republicans promised to do the following. Remember as you read this that they were not saying they needed a Republican president, or even a Republican Senate, to take these actions – after all, the Constitution, which the Pledge vowed to uphold, gives the House primacy over spending and borrowing:
Cut Government Spending to Pre- Stimulus, Pre-Bailout Levels
With common-sense exceptions for seniors, veterans, and our troops, we will roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, saving us at least $100 billion in the first year alone and putting us on a path to begin paying down the debt, balancing the budget, and ending the spending spree in Washington that threatens our children’s future.
Establish a Hard Cap on New Discretionary Spending
We must put common-sense limits on the growth of government and stop the endless increases. Only in Washington is there an expectation that whatever your budget was last year, it will be more this year and even more the next. We will set strict budget caps to limit federal spending on an annual basis. Budget caps were used in the 1990s, when a Republican Congress was able to bring the budget into balance and eventual surplus. By cutting discretionary spending from current levels and imposing a hard cap on future growth, we will save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.
Root Out Government Waste and Sunset Outdated & Duplicative Programs
Once created, federal programs almost never go away, even if the problem they were created to address is no longer relevant. More than 20 states have addressed this problem by requiring that programs end – or “sunset” – by a date certain. We will adopt this requirement at the federal level to force Congress to determine if a program is worthy of continued taxpayer support.
Reform the Budget Process to Focus on Long-Term Challenges
We will make the decisions that are necessary to protect our entitlement programs for today’s seniors and future generations. That means requiring a full accounting of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, setting benchmarks for these programs and reviewing them regularly, and preventing the expansion of unfunded liabilities.
Again, Republicans were not promising the impossible – at least if we judge by the House’s constitutional authority as opposed to Republican appetite to use, rather than talk about using, that authority. No spending or borrowing can take place in the United States absent the approval of Congress.
So what happened after voters trusted Republicans to do what they said they were going to do?
Upon taking control of the House in 2011, Republicans approved a budget with $1.3 trillion in deficit spending, pushing the national debt to $14.7 trillion (this is the officially recognized debt, not taking into account tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities).
Today, after four years of GOP control of the House, during the last ten months of which Republicans have also controlled the Senate, the debt stands at $18 trillion. In his last official act, Speaker John Boehner, along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, will accede to Obama’s demand to push the debt limit to an unimaginable $19.5 trillion in just the next two years – a transparent attempt to remove the threat posed by deficit spending as a 2016 election issue.
That is nearly $5 trillion added to the national debt since the GOP’s 2010 pledge to end out-of-control borrowing and spending. Mind you, it took over 200 years for the United States to accumulate $5 trillion in debt after constitutional governance began in the late eighteenth century. With this latest deal, Republicans have colluded with Democrats to add about two-and-a-half times that amount – $13 trillion – since President George W. Bush was sworn in in January 2001.
In the 2016 campaign, Republicans will blame all of this on Obama and the Democrats. They will continue to hope you don’t realize the spending could not have happened without their acquiescence – often their insistence. They will hope you don’t check the paper trail and realize that they promised to stop it, then caved. They will vow: “If you’ll just turn out to vote for us, under our new management, we are not going to do business like this.”
If, come January 20, 2017, Hillary Clinton is taking the presidential oath of office, ready to hit the ground running with big Democratic gains in Congress, we will know why.