Boehner's Trillions

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) gave a speech to the Club of New York on Monday, in which he said that “without significant spending cuts and reforms to reduce our debt, there will be no debt limit increase.”

How “significant” will these spending reductions need to be?  “We should be talking about cuts of trillions, not just billions,” the Speaker declared, adding the very interesting detail that “the cuts should be greater than the accompanying increase in debt authority the President is given.”  In other words, if we increase the debt ceiling by $2 trillion, there will need to be at least $2 trillion in spending cuts.

“With the exception of tax hikes, which will destroy jobs, everything is on the table,” the Speaker promised.  “The big myth of the current budget debate is the notion that in order to balance the budget, we have to raise taxes.  The truth is that we will never balance the budget and rid our children of debt unless we cut spending and have real economic growth.  And we will never have real economic growth if we raise taxes on those in America who create jobs.”

It sounds like Boehner learned a few lessons among the smoke and mirrors of the last budget deal he reached with the Democrats, because he insists the new spending reductions “should be actual cuts and program reforms, not broad deficit or debt targets that punt the tough questions to the future.”

This tough talk from Boehner represents a third possible Republican position on the debt ceiling increase.  Some don’t want to raise the debt limit at all, preferring to force the bloated federal government to learn a tough lesson in fiscal discipline by slashing billions in discretionary spending per month to keep up with interest payments on the national debt.  Others propose allowing one final debt ceiling increase in exchange for iron-clad spending caps and a balanced budget amendment.  The Speaker would set the price of a debt ceiling increase at trillions of dollars in immediate spending cuts.

All of these approaches have their merits, but I’m in the “Hells No” camp.  I would prefer to leave the debt ceiling in place, because it’s a single and relatively straightforward action.  The combination of spending caps and a balanced budget amendment would involve at least two titanic political battles, as both measures would be opposed with unholy fury by Democrats, not to mention opening the Constitutional amendment can of worms.  These are the reforms that will ultimately guide America to a sustainable government, but it will take time to win those battles, and the ground must be prepared for them first.  Calling the statists’ bluff on the need for endlessly increasing debt would be a good first step.

Boehner’s idea of demanding vast and immediate cuts would set the stage for another round of negotiations with the Democrats, who would surely pull out of all the stops to fight trillions in cuts.  They were willing to accuse Republicans of wanting to murder women and the elderly over a paltry $38 billion just a few weeks ago.

It’s good that Boehner wants to begin the negotiations with a serious number this time.  During the last debate, a promise of $100 billion in cuts was quickly forgotten, and even the promised sum would have been a largely symbolic gesture.  In the end, Republicans were fighting over table scraps, making the entire debate look unserious.  That granted undeserved strength to the Democrats’ absurd arguments, and allowed them to pose as exhausted marathon runners after taking the tiniest of baby steps toward fiscal sanity.

Boehner’s trillions in cuts represent a laudable one-time reduction in spending, not a permanent systemic solution to the issue of unsustainable government.  I’d be all in favor of his approach if it serves as a precursor to balanced budget and spending cap legislation, and makes $14.3 trillion the grim height of our national debt.  Otherwise, it will simply fill in a hole that Democrats will begin frantically digging again, the very next day.