JOHN BOEHNER is speaking out of both sides of his mouth. Multiple news reports on Friday had the House speaker telling fellow Republicans he would never let the nation default on its debts, which was a relief to the world. But on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday, he appeared to reverse course, telling George Stephanopoulos that “there are not the votes in the House” to increase the debt ceiling without concessions from President Obama.
Boehner’s comment was a head-scratcher, because there are almost certainly enough votes to raise the debt ceiling with no conditions attached. If the chamber’s Democrats were allowed to vote, they plus as few as 17 of the 232 Republicans could spare the nation the economic catastrophe that would follow a US bond default. Almost certainly, Boehner meant there are not enough votes among Republicans alone to raise the debt ceiling. Thus, the US economy is hostage to the perverse strictures of the “Hastert rule” — the hardball strategy under which bills go forward only if most members of the speaker’s party approve, and the views of duly elected members of the minority party are barely relevant. The Founding Fathers can rest easy: They set up a workable structure. It’s Dennis Hastert, Boehner, and other recent speakers — Democrat Nancy Pelosi largely adhered to the rule, too — who’ve messed things up.
Hastert and Pelosi, however, never let the nation’s government grind to a halt or used the threat of economic disaster to force through their parties’ agenda. Plainly, a House speaker has higher responsibilities than his own political survival or willingness to enforce a politically convenient “rule.” Boehner must do the right thing and let the whole House vote on an uncorrupted appropriations bill and debt-ceiling hike. It’s time for the party that loves to invoke the Founding Fathers to honor the system they set up.
Of course, waiting on an act of courage from Boehner may not suffice to pull the nation back from the edge. Obama, for his part, has been wise to refuse to negotiate under threat of either the government shutdown or the debt default. Were he to give in now, he and all his successors would be subject to such blackmail by minority factions of Congress every time an appropriations bill or debt-ceiling increase were up for a vote. (What, for example, would stop a liberal bloc in a Democratic-controlled House from thwarting a debt-ceiling hike unless they win federal funding for single-payer health care? It’s entirely plausible that their supporters would demand as much were Republicans successful in manipulating the debt-ceiling vote to set back Obamacare.)
But while the president should stick with his no-negotiations stance, senators from both parties are free to float face-saving solutions that might stave off a ruinous default. In his remarks on Sunday, Boehner suggested that the key obstacle to raising the debt ceiling was not Obamacare but a plan to reduce the deficit. Cutting the long-term deficit through a “grand bargain” is something both Obama and Boehner have long discussed, and each purports to want. It would be foolish to try to hammer out such an elaborate deal before the debt-ceiling deadline of Oct. 17, but a framework for such an agreement could give Boehner the cover he needs to open the debt-ceiling vote to the whole House.
The deficit is not, in fact, the pressing concern that it was a year ago, even though it remains a long-term problem. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the government will run a $642 billion shortfall for this fiscal year, after four years of trillion-dollar-plus deficits. The big drop has come about because of the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for high earners, the budget cuts made through sequestration, and the improving economy.
Ironically, a blow to economic growth like the one being struck via the government shutdown and debt-ceiling brinkmanship would do more to increase the deficit than the most profligate spending proposals or largest tax cuts currently on the table. Thus, the posturing on the Republican side of the aisle, of which Boehner’s hapless gyrations are only the most recent expression, isn’t aimed at bringing about a solution to the debt crisis. It’s a crisis unto itself.