The House Republicans are contemplating a new budget-hostage strategy, the the Washington Post reports in a story that is both highly useful and inadvertently Onion-esque. The hallmark of Onion news reporting is conveying insanity as if it were sane in a completely deadpan way. The news contained within the story is that the House GOP is thinking of tying the next increase in the debt ceiling to tax reform. Under this proposed strategy, the Post reports, “The debt limit might be raised for only a few months, with the promise of another increase when tax reform legislation passes the Senate.”
If you didn’t fall out of your chair when reading that apparently anodyne sentence, let me explain why you should have. In 2011, House Republicans undertook a novel and radically new dangerous political tactic of using the debt limit as a political bargaining chip. Before, the opposition party had treated the debt limit increase as a necessary step, though one they would posture over and use to flay the administration. (Senator Barack Obama followed this pattern.) The Republicans instead decided to actually threaten not to raise the debt ceiling unless Obama granted them policy concessions. This was extraordinarily risky. By mixing together a vote that was needed to prevent economic calamity with inherently contentious debates over the size of government, it turned routine budget disputes into a financial Cuban Missile Crisis.
The official party rationale for this extraordinary tactic was that, risky though it may be to fail to lift the debt ceiling, failing to reduce the debt was even riskier. An extreme imminent crisis justified extreme tactics. The risk of becoming Greece outweighed the risk of a debt-limit snafu (though it was not, of course, high enough to justify even a partial repeal of the Bush tax cuts).
President Obama has taken these arguments at face value, offering to meet the opposition halfway, or more than halfway, in order to strike a deal. He has publicly offered significant cuts to spending on retirement programs. But some Republicans don’t want that deal, the Post reports, because “The proposals, included in the president’s budget request, outraged seniors, and some Republicans fear that embracing them would be political suicide.”
Oh! So you threaten to melt down the world economy unless Obama agrees to cut spending on retirement programs, and then he offers to do that, and then you decide it’s too unpopular?
The decision that they no longer care about the thing they were prepared to unleash worldwide economic havoc to achieve has not caused them to abandon the debt ceiling as a hostage. (It’s the party’s Nelson Muntz–ian approach to resolving policy disagreements: “Gotta nuke something.") If obtaining retirement cuts went from so urgent it was worth threatening to nuke the world economy over to "meh," the next step is to figure out the next thing to nuke the world economy over. That thing, the Post reports, is tax reform.
But what is the GOP position on tax reform? It’s that tax reform must cut tax rates and not raise any revenue at all. So House Republicans are prepared to refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless Democrats agree to let them cut tax rates without increasing revenue. Their extraordinary threat, first presented as a way to force a reduction in the deficit, is now being wielded to prevent a reduction in the deficit.