In his first two years in power President Joe Biden and the Democrats added several trillion dollars to the national debt, shooting inflation to 40-year highs. Democrats hoped to repeat these spending sprees again in 2023 and beyond.
But when Republicans won the House majority the vote to increase the national debt became a leverage point to begin to stop the bleeding and force a U-turn on spending. Can Republicans take advantage of this showdown to rein in spending? Yes, if they follow the six steps outlined below.
- Highlight the fact that the American people support the Republican position: Spending cuts must accompany any debt ceiling increase.
Americans want spending constraints to accompany any debt ceiling increase. This is an across-the-board view that has held steady for at least a decade. 63% of Americans want congress to insist on spending reductions in return for any vote to increase the debt ceiling, according to a Harvard-Harris poll released Jan. 20. This is even higher than a similar 2013 Bloomberg poll which found 61 percent insisting on spending cuts.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Republicans have the wind of popular opinion with them when they negotiate with Biden.
- On the other hand: Don’t try to please the media. The press is not on your side. This is not a fair fight. Okay, this is true for all political battles in today’s Washington, D.C., but wise to keep this in mind as Republicans enter a months-long showdown.
- Learn from the Past. In 2011 and 2013 we fought this very battle with the same chess pieces. Republican House, Democrat Senate majority — but at least 41 Republican senators with the power to filibuster. In 2011 and 2013 Barack Obama was president and Biden did much of the negotiating. In 2023 Biden is the president.
What happened then?
Republicans demanded that before they would vote for a debt ceiling increase there needed to be an enforceable limit on spending that would bring down planned spending for the next ten years by $2.4 trillion, matching Obama’s wish for a $2.4 trillion debt ceiling hike. That is what passed and was enforced with the sequester.
The arguments against Republicans today are the mirror images of the false assertions hurled at Republican House speaker John Boehner and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell:
“We must raise the debt ceiling ‘now’ or the nation will go bankrupt!”
“We cannot afford to negotiate for six months as the world will abandon the dollar if we take too long!”
“The debt ceiling should be raised ‘clean’ without amendments.”
“It is ‘not done’ to use the debt ceiling as a negotiating tool.”
In fact, none of the above were true in 2011 or 2013. Or before. Or since. Most debt ceiling increases have had amendments. Some very important ones. Both parties have used the leverage of the debt ceiling to focus on their concerns. Waiting until the last moment has not cost the US its world leadership or the value of the dollar.
- Focus on Spending. Not the Deficit.
The debt ceiling will be raised. Some Republicans have focused on a “balanced budget in X years.” The deficit is not the metric to focus on. Spending is the metric to focus on.
Democrats desperately want to avoid a discussion of spending. They have nothing to offer on spending reduction and they know the voters are with the Republicans on this question.
After all, Democrats can “balance the budget” or “reduce the deficit” with tax hikes. The Democrats would love to have Republicans take the lead on a massive tax hike large enough to “reduce the deficit.” The Democrats, of course, plan to spend every dollar of any tax hike (as they did with George H.W. Bush’s tax hikes, Bill Clinton’s tax hikes, Obama’s tax hikes and now Biden’s.)
Tax hikes in Biden’s world are for spending.
So the GOP should focus solely on the total dollars spent in any one year and over time. Keep spending down and the deficits will fall as they did when the GOP stopped Clinton’s planned spending spree in 1995 and turned it into a balanced budget without tax hikes.
- Never. Ever. Agree to a tax hike.
This is both political and economic advice. Tax hikes slow economic growth. Bad economics.
Since 1994, most Republicans have signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge to vote against any tax increase. Republican congresses have a perfect record of not voting for or even speaking kindly about any tax increases.
- Now is not the time to address Medicare or Social Security
(Also do not go to the basement with Schumer looking for a cask of Amontillado.)
Democrats want nothing more than to claim Republicans are coming to slash Social Security checks for seniors. Don’t give them that.
In 2011 and 2013 Democrats offered to do a “big bill” or “grand bargain” raising the debt ceiling with a trillion in new taxes and a trillion in spending restraint on Social Security and Medicare. It was a trap.
Once the Republicans agreed to “saving” the bankrupt system they would have been denounced as wishing to “gut them” and also to agreeing to tax hike — damaging their brand as the party that would never raise taxes.
The good news is that Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Leader McConnell have both stated they want a dollar-for-dollar reduction in spending for every dollar Biden demands for debt ceiling increase and that they will NOT touch Social Security/Medicare. Nor with they ever, ever, ever hike taxes on the American people.
Now if they can remember the lessons from 2011 and 2013 they should be in a good position to repeat that victory.
Grover Norquist is the President of Americans for Tax Reform
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