A few thoughts on the implications of Boehner adding a “Balanced Budget Amendment” to his debt-ceiling bill (which would now require that Congress pass a BBA before a second debt-ceiling increase could take place early in 2012):
Adding the BBA makes the bill very likely to pass the House. This addition appeases Tea Partiers, who had denied Boehner the majority he needs to pass it.
The Boehner bill as it stood on Thursday night might not have been able to pass the Senate; the Boehner bill of today definitely can’t. The very thing that makes the bill likely to pass the House – its Tea Party pedigree – will kill it in the Senate.
If Congress is really required to pass a BBA before a second hike in the debt ceiling, prepare for the same gridlock six or so months from now.
In order for the debt ceiling to be increased, Republicans and Democrats will have to compromise. That means especially that Tea Partiers will have to compromise. In a democratic republic, you don’t get to dictate policy to everyone if you only control less than a quarter of the votes. And threatening to bring the house down unless a supermajority of Congress agrees to the passage of a methodologically unconservative Balanced Budget Amendment is not compromising.
Beware the “second tranche.” The current battle over the debt ceiling has exacted a considerable price from Congressional Republicans and has risked an economic-fiscal-financial meltdown. Going for another round about this issue, when the players will be the same, seems like it might not be the most effective approach. I know the existence of a “second tranche” is one of the biggest differences between the Boehner and Reid plans (the latter would raise the debt ceiling until after the next election), but I think Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) has shown some wisdom here in doubting the value of a second hike so soon after the first. The debt-ceiling debate has sucked up a lot of air that conservatives could have used to advance other small-government policies.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of adding the BBA to the Boehner bill is that it gives Republicans something more to trade away. The inclusion of the BBA will give Republicans some more negotiating room if there is to be a Boehner-Reid compromise package.
The following is one possible (perhaps, at this hour, the most probable) course of events:
- House passes Boehner + BBA
- Senate passes Reid-like bill
- Some compromise measure comes out of conference (this will very likely not have a strong BBA requirement).
The Senate will likely pass any compromise, and Republicans will have a stronger hand in negotiations over the compromise if the caucus stays united; anything that increases the power of Nancy Pelosi in negotiations will ultimately undermine the position of conservatives, and the more votes Boehner needs from Democrats, the stronger Pelosi will be.
If the economy crashes because of a refusal to raise the debt ceiling, Republicans will be blamed. The failed vote on the Ryan plan may have damaged the ability of Republicans to attack Obamacare for its cuts to Medicare; Republicans should be wary of closing off another line of attack in 2012. Obama increasingly owns the economy, and Republicans have been able to creep away from the disastrous tail end of George W. Bush’s economic policies. If the economy tanks and the debt ceiling is not raised, Democrats (and their allies in the media) will be pointing fingers at the “absolutists” in the Tea Party and GOP caucus who would not compromise. Those attacks will very likely work or at least muddy the waters enough to limit the effectiveness of the Republican economic critique in 2012. The economy already may be slowing down; refusing to raise the debt ceiling will be a way to take partial ownership of a double-dip recession.
No matter how “virtuous” or “pure” the Tea Partiers are, an Obama victory in 2012 would very likely close the door on the kinds of reforms that many conservatives would prefer. The numbers in Congress are against Tea Party-style reforms, and, in a democratic republic, numbers matter a lot. Rather than fuming or threatening or beating one’s chest in self-adulation, it is far better to engage in the hard work of rational persuasion, sober compromise, and hopeful deliberation. Will any budget “deal” be pretty bad from a conservative perspective? Probably. But we can work to make the least bad such deal possible. That’s what conservatism—and rational governance—is about.