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May 30, 2023

The Bipartisan Agreement to Kick the Can

Republicans did pull out some wins in the debt ceiling agreement, but the fundamental problem remains.

For those who don’t remember what the Constitution says, which is most of our elected representatives, it does not authorize a great deal of what the federal government spends our tax dollars to do. Heck, even the 16th Amendment establishing the major federal revenue stream that is the income tax is of dubious origin. Those are important considerations to keep in mind every time we play Washington’s new favorite game, “Debt Ceiling Apocalypse.”

Leaders of both parties have announced a deal in principle to avoid default by June 1 June 5. Both chambers of Congress must still pass that deal, and many members of both parties promise to oppose it.

More on the deal in a moment, but first a brief history of this showdown.

Joe Biden was elected to be the experienced “steady hand” after the supposedly disastrous dark reign of Donald Trump. He promised Unity™ like the good old days of his youth (a very long time ago).

Instead, he immediately set about to castigate his “Ultra MAGA” opponents, disparaging half the country as radical extremists. He and his party ham-handedly pushed through massive new spending that ignited rampant inflation, wrecking the budgets of millions of Americans.

When it came to the federal debt ceiling, Biden’s “negotiating” tactic was to pronounce that he would not negotiate. Even a modest walk-back of exorbitant new spending was a nonstarter for him. Raise the ceiling unconditionally, he demanded, or his media minions would trash and blame Republicans.

Republicans said no, that’s not the way things work. Under the leadership of Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the House passed a bill to raise the ceiling with some budget tweaks. For weeks, Biden refused to even talk about it until the supposed default deadline loomed imminent, even going on vacation.

Nevertheless, Democrats and Republicans managed to agree to a compromise that makes no one happy, though there’s certainly some good news for the GOP.

Republicans managed to secure a reduction in spending growth — instead of $757 billion in non-defense discretionary spending, it will be $704 billion, though that’s still higher than their goal of $689 billion. Discretionary spending growth in fiscal 2025 will be just 1%, and if Congress fails to pass its 12 appropriations bills by yearend, it will be cut by 1%. Returning to the regular order of passing such appropriations bills instead of ugly omnibus legislation that no one reads but that greatly increases spending is a (small) win for the GOP.

Republicans also secured a 3% increase in defense spending (you know, one of the few items specifically enumerated in the Constitution), though that still doesn’t keep pace with Bidenflation or sufficiently meet the threats a weak Biden has allowed to manifest.

Furthermore, Republicans took back the IRS budget increase for this year and then some, though they fell far short of their goal. They clawed back some unspent COVID relief funds, and they made progress on some welfare programs via work requirements for able-bodied adults. Not awful for a party that narrowly controls only one chamber of Congress, and McCarthy and Co. deserve credit for passing a bill of their own to strengthen their negotiating position.

That isn’t to say this deal is ideal.

For example, Republicans failed to rein in the regulatory state or repeal green energy tax credits. They also didn’t stop Biden’s unconstitutional student debt forgiveness, though the Supreme Court may yet do that and McCarthy’s bid was more likely a strategic way to give Biden a “win” without changing anything.

More importantly, this deal is ultimately just Republicans bragging, We still grow government, only a little slower.

Indeed, many Republicans held nothing back lampooning it. The problem is that, while Ted Cruz, Chip Roy, Ken Buck, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and the rest are exactly right in their criticism, we’ll reiterate that the GOP controls just one half of Congress. The party blew its golden opportunity to retake the Senate or win a bigger majority in the House. Thus, the current deal is about as good as can be won.

Meanwhile, the last time Republicans forced a Democrat president into significant welfare reform was 1996, and the federal debt was less than this year’s budget — $5.2 trillion. The current debt ceiling is already an eye-popping $31.4 trillion, and this deal will suspend it for two years.

Then we’ll play Debt Ceiling Apocalypse all over again.

For that reason, the Washington Post editorial board says having a debt ceiling doesn’t make sense. In a way, the editors have a point.

The debt ceiling is a bad joke as long as both parties are haggling over nickels and dimes while shoveling $100 bills into bottomless entitlements and endless pet projects. As the Post puts it, this deal “isn’t a substitute for coming up with an actual, forward-looking fiscal strategy.” Make no mistake, the Post’s idea of fiscal strategy is a long way from ours, or the one laid out in the Constitution, but we’ll give one cheer for the modicum of sanity the paper’s editors advise.

Until basic budget responsibility prevails, to say nothing of fidelity to the Constitution, we’ll continue the gradual course toward sudden catastrophe.

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