The attacks on House Speaker John Boehner followed quickly and furiously (not to be confused with Operation Fast and Furious) on the heels of what had to have been a painful vote for House Republicans. But just as President Obama believes that at some point, one has made enough money, this writer believes that at some point, one has sufficiently beaten a dead horse. Or a live speaker. So now that the barely re-elected and clearly chastened, has stood before the House and delivered a near-tearful mea culpa, what say we hold off on further criticism and focus our efforts on the more useful task of analyzing what Boehner did wrong, learn from his mistakes and use what we’ve learned to strengthen his hand moving forward.
Boehner’s critics have focused mostly on the substance of his negotiations with President Obama; however, for me and a few other Republicans, the fault lay more with process than with substance. From the moment Obama assumed office, Democrats have worked overtime to exclude Republicans from the legislating process. Needless to say, when Republicans won back control of the House in 2010, Republicans quite reasonably expected their own leaders to treat them better than Nancy Pelosi did. But no. For when the speaker meets with the president one-on-one and then presents his caucus with a 152-page fait accompli literally minutes before expecting them to vote on it, well, how is that Republican hopey-changey stuff workin’ for ya?
By not submitting proposed legislation through regular order, by not allowing committees to mark up a bill, by not allowing rank and file House Republicans the opportunity to participate in the process, did he seriously expect the excluded Republicans to endorse the result?
So that’s lesson number one: include your caucus in the process. Give them a role in the takeoff if you want them there for the landing. You want to sit down with the president? Fine, here’s what you can offer and here’s what you cannot offer. And if Obama gives you a proposal or counterproposal, bring it back your caucus, we’ll debate, we’ll vote and then we will tell you how to respond. You’re the Speaker of the House, not the Decider of the House. Presidents can act unilaterally. Speakers of the House – Republican ones, anyway – do so at their own peril.
The good news, as I’ll demonstrate shortly, is that this seeming weakness – Boehner’s severely restrained ability to “freelance” – can in fact be a source of strength in the debt ceiling battle, if Republicans are willing to be bold.
In the fiscal cliff, we had a slate of tax-rate cuts scheduled to expire on a date certain, a Democratic president happy to see those rates rise (and no, not just on “the wealthy”) and a Republican House wanting to keep every American’s tax rate low. In that circumstance, Obama was guaranteed to get his tax increases regardless and so, needed to do nothing,
The debt ceiling, however, reverses the two sides’ positions. Now, there will be a president who wants to spend facing a debt ceiling that in short order will prevent him from spending, and a GOP House that would be more than happy to see that happen. Thus, where time was on the side of Obama and the Democrats on the fiscal cliff; it now favors Boehner and the Republicans, but (this is the “bold” part) only if they are willing, as Obama was willing to let everyone’s tax rates rise, to refuse to raise the debt ceiling. If they do refuse, then it will be virtually impossible for the Republicans to lose. Indeed, the airing of bizarre schemes to mint trillion-dollar coins, issue scrip and to abuse the 14th Amendment shows how desperate the position the Democrats find themselves in. And how desperate Democrats are to keep spending.
So what specific steps can Boehner and the Republicans take to put themselves in the strongest possible position? Here are my suggestions:
First, Republicans need to appraise their strategic position, which is stronger than they seem to think it is. Republicans’ holds on most governorships (30, to be exact) and state legislatures have allowed them to do what Democrats once did: use redistricting virtually to guarantee GOP control of the House. And there won’t be another redistricting until 2020. Certainly, the debt ceiling will have been resolved and removed as an issue long before any representative needs to face the voters. Time heals all wounds, including wounds to Republicans.
Second, the evidence of experience shows indicates clearly that the supposed economic damage from a “government shutdown” is being greatly exaggerated. Recently, three prominent economists examine the historical record and coauthored a paper for Harvard University on the actual, real-world “eﬀects of multi-year ﬁscal plans rather than individual shifts in ﬁscal variables” and found (emphases mine):
… that it matters crucially how the ﬁscal correction occurs. Adjustments based upon spending cuts are much less costly in terms of output losses than tax-based ones. Spending-based adjustments have been associated with mild and short-lived recessions, in many cases with no recession at all.
Conversely (emphasis mine):
Tax-based adjustments have been associated with prolonged and deep recessions.
In other words, those opposing Obama and the Democrats’ tax rate hikes and calling for deep spending cuts are absolutely correct and House and Senate Republicans should say so. Perhaps, one or more House committees could invite Alesina, Favero and Giavazzi to testify, – or is that too obvious for The Stupid Party?
Well, we all know the answer to that question, but the more important question is, what, would be the practical result of dramatically cutting spending, whether by agreement or by not raising the debt ceiling? Most likely, a brief recession that would be over or almost over by November 2014 or no recession at all.
Another practical effect could – indeed, probably would – be a stock market crash – but here again, debt ceiling alarmists are almost surely exaggerating. Let’s look at the famous 1987 market crash, when the market plunged 22.6 percent in a single day, scaring the bejeezus out of a lot of people in the process. But both the plunge and the panic were short-lived as (emphasis mine):
[T]he market rebounded remarkably following the 1987 stock market crash. The market began a slow and steady climb almost immediately. In fact, before the end of 1989, the Dow Jones Industrials would once again be setting new record highs.
No one can predict the future, of course, yet there is every reason for Republicans to expect the markets, if they do crash, to be well on the way to recovery, very probably to have achieved full recovery and possibly hitting new highs, before the next election in November 2014. And with government spending cut, debt payments reduced and the concomitant increased money available in the private sector, Republicans could, in fact, find themselves also in the midst of a robust economic boom – and basking in the vindication of their economic philosophy.
So with the built-in advantage of redistricting, the minimal prospect of a severe economic downturn and an anticipated quick recovery from a market crash, if there even is one, that leaves only one thing for Republicans to worry about. But, unfortunately, this last remaining threat is the greatest, deadliest threat of all, one that can, and has, turned the most stalwartly conservative Republican into a fearful, quivering blancmange of liberal appeasement: critical editorials in the liberal MSM. My parents taught me that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” so why GOP Congressmen and presidents should buckle and cave at the mildest statement of displeasure by the Times or the Post, I have no idea. But they do and given the strength of the GOP instinct to cringe at the slightest discordant note from the MSM, I must conclude, sadly, that nothing short of the most extreme therapy will remedy this problem. Every congressional Republican, including – no, especially – Boehner and McConnell, needs to be strapped to a gurney and fed, intravenously if necessary, increasingly large doses of Times and Post editorial venom until he can withstand an entire interrogation from David Gregory or George Stephanopoulos without compromising at least one out of three of their core beliefs. Call me an incurable optimist, but I believe it can be done and when it has been done, the GOP will be ready to engage our darling friends on the other side of the aisle, thusly:
First, any Republican confronted by a member of the MSM with the “government default” canard – and it is a canard – should respond as freshman Senator Ted Cruz recently did (follow link and scroll down for video) (emphasis mine):
Let me be clear, I do not support default on the debt and we should never default on the debt, and the only players who are threatening to default are President Obama and Harry Reid. This is an issue, and earlier in the show you played the President threatening default. I n any given month, tax revenues are $200 billion and interest is $30 or $40 billion. There is plenty of revenue to service the debt and any responsible President would’ve stood at that podium and said, “Whatever happens with the debt ceiling, we will always pay our debt. We’ll never default on the debt,” and the reason the President isn’t doing that is he’s trying to scare people and raise the specter of financial apocalypse.
Of course, the MSM will try to spin the circumstances so as to pin the “blame” on the GOP, which is why every Republican needs to respond as Cruz did, every time they are questioned on the issue. And by the way, ditto for any other essential spending. Let the president explain why he wants to damage America’s credit rating in order to fund Planned Parenthood or to study the sex life of the Japanese quail. I suspect that we can get along for a while without the Department of Education, too.
And if the president will be so irresponsible as not to prioritize our payments to foreign creditors (that “if,” by the way, is a joke), the House can, each month, raise the debt ceiling by $30 billion, $40 billion – whatever is the precise amount necessary to pay each month’s interest on the national debt. Doing so would (a) leave no doubt that the funds exist to satisfy our creditors and (b) “pin the blame on the donkey” for any failure to pay.
The House could, and probably should, go even farther and send the Senate a bill specifically directing the president to prioritize our debt payments. The editors of the National Review weigh in with an excellent suggestion for a bill the House could pass that would statutorily prevent default and thus neuter the default issue completely (emphases mine):
The House should pass a bill to redefine the debt limit so that it constrains primary spending but not debt service. Under this reform, a Treasury that had hit the statutory borrowing limit could continue to borrow what it needed exclusively for paying interest on the national debt and to roll over existing debt obligations, but it could not borrow for any other government spending until the limit had been increased. This would take default entirely off the table.
And if the Senate refuses to act on a House debt prioritization bill, or the bill reaches Obama and he vetoes it? Then the United States’ credit rating suffers, our interest payments soar, foreigners (and perhaps also domestic investors) refuse to lend to us and it becomes much harder for us to borrow and spend. Which is supposed to be what Republicans, or at least the conservatives among us, want. Or so I thought.
And when America does emerge into the light at the end of the fiscal tunnel, are we to believe that no one, no way, no how, would lend to a financially restructured America, resting on a sound financial footing? A nation based no longer on borrowing and spending, but on its traditional values of savings and thrift? Are we to believe that foreign creditors prefer an America that borrows or prints the money to pay her debts, over an America that pays with real money, backed by real wealth?
But most important is to understand that the notion of a U.S. credit default is absurd; the idea that America’s creditors will never be repaid is a myth (emphasis mine):
Those who scream that failure to raise the debt ceiling will cause our credit rating to plummet ignore the fact that Section 4 of the 14th Amendment provides that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned.” What this means is that any debts incurred by the government must be paid off; creditors will not be fleeced, and contrary to the hysteria that there is not enough money to pay off these debts [and as Senator Cruz echoed, above], the government’s incoming tax revenue, which amounts to $200 billion per month, is enough to do the job. I f the government refused to do so, creditors could get a money judgment from the Court of Federal Claims. Thus credit agencies should have no doubt that the United States will pay off its creditors.
Second, Boehner & Co. need to eschew the one-dollar-of-spending-cuts-for-every-one-dollar-of-debt-ceiling-increase tactic, as well as the strategy of declaring a willingness to “shut down the government” until an agreement is reached.” If one is going to float the “government shutdown” option, a “government shutdown” of indefinite duration, with no perceived end in sight, is absolutely the worst kind. What Boehner and the House GOP should do is to name a specific amount of spending reduction and make the attainment of that amount the condition for lifting the ceiling. So say that after – and only after Boehner consults with his caucus, the amount they collectively arrive at is $4 trillion over ten years, or $400 billion a year. Boehner should call a press conference and announce that if the president will not negotiate spending cuts of $400 billion a year, Republicans, each year that they have the power to do so, will agree to raise the debt limit only after spending has been reduced by $400 billion below the preceding year. That way, when challenged by the MSM after, say, two weeks have passed and, say, $50 billion has been cut, Republicans can reply, “We’ve already cut $50 billion; $350 billion to go and we can raise the ceiling. A few weeks later: “$150 billion cut, $250 billion to go!” And so on. Given how rapidly the federal government spends money, the process, however painful, should be mercifully short. And I suspect that once we pass the halfway point, the average American will be willing, perhaps even happy, to endure for a little while more. And then, America having survived the “shutdown crisis,” the Democrats’ leverage and perhaps their spirit, too, will be broken.
Republicans, in a show of bipartisanship, should gladly point out that the “cloud” of not raising the debt ceiling contains a “silver lining” for President Obama, too, because, in this this scenario, he would get to decide what to cut. Or to put it another way, Obama would get to decide which part of his base he wants to anger.
But the main point is to make clear to the Obama and the Democrats, as they did similarly to Republicans in the fiscal cliff, that, one way or another, spending will be cut. By a lot.
And so we come, finally, to the point where, as promised, I explain how the so-called weakening of Boehner in the fiscal cliff fight strengthens him in the approaching fight to come over the debt ceiling. It strengthens him by allowing him to maximize the leverage to be gained by the use of time, which, this time, will be on the Republicans’ side.
To really understand how the exploiting of the time factor would work in practice, one must first view a very informative instructional video, by clicking here.
Regardless of substance or issue, the mere practice simple delay can be infuriatingly frustrating, can it not?
Now consider the famous “rope-a-dope” strategy Muhammad Ali so effectively against George Foreman, causing the hapless pugilist to waste both time and energy (emphasis mine):
The rope-a-dope is performed by a boxer assuming a protected stance (in Ali’s classic pose, lying against the ropes which allows much of the punch’s energy to be absorbed by the ropes’ elasticity rather than the boxer’s body) while allowing his opponent to hit him, providing only enough counter-attack to avoid the referee thinking the boxer is no longer able to continue and thus ending the match via technical knockout. The plan is to cause the opponent to “punch himself out” and make mistakes which the boxer then exploit in a counter-attack.
In the debt ceiling “fight,” the goal would be slightly different and Republicans would be well advised to avoid the urge to express their consternation with an incompetent president, physically. Instead, the goal would be to delay, delay, delay and then delay some more, essentially running out the clock as the treasury secretary struggles to find or create new accounting gimmicks to avoid default and the president struggles to navigate the increasingly hazardous rapids between the Scylla of agreeing to the Republicans’ spending cuts and the Charybdis of proposing his own. The easiest way to accomplish this would be for Boehner’s caucus to hold him to his promise not to negotiate directly with the president and then the normal workings of the legislative process would do the rest. The House should proceed by regular order, marking up a bill in committee, scheduling a vote, voting, sending the result to the Senate, taking as much time as possible with every step of the process. And if the Senate sends back an amended bill, do it all over again, even more slowly, if possible.
But even if the president invites Boehner to negotiate, and Boehner accepts, all would not be lost and in fact could even make Boehner’s negotiating position stronger. If, at a negotiating session, the president asks Boehner if he has anything to propose, Boehner should reply, “You, of all people, Mr. President should know how much you weakened me in the fiscal cliff negotiations. I can do nothing without the consent of my caucus and they have not authorized me to propose anything. But if you want to make a proposal, I will take it to my caucus, discuss it with them, let them vote on it and get back to you with their decision.”
And so on, and so on. Every idea Obama proffers, large or small, should be met with a promise from Boehner to “take it to my caucus and get back to you.”
And while he’s doing all this, it wouldn’t hurt for Boehner… to… talk… very… slowly… Run out the clock, make time work for the Republicans and against the Democrats and the side lesser addicted to spending other people’s money will win.
Call it Rope-a-Dem.