Until the GOP took over the House of Representatives in 2011, raising the U.S. debt ceiling was a routine, uncontroversial legislative activity. Almost always supported by the party in power in the House and Senate, increases in Uncle Sam's borrowing authority were usually linked to major new spending laws. Otherwise, Congress would send the president a "clean," no-strings attached bill allowing the Treasury to pay the bills already incurred. "No" votes from minority party members incapable of blocking the hike, as Senators Harry Reid and Barack Obama could attest, were purely symbolic.
But after three years of variously demanding spending cuts, the repeal of Obamacare, draconian new abortion restrictions or even acceptance of the House GOP budget, Republicans are struggling to find a new hostage to ransom. So here is a modest proposal for Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell:
Pass a clean bill raising the debt ceiling by $800 billion right now. According to current CBO deficit projections for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, that figure would give Uncle Sam over 18 months before needing the next increase. That also means no more debt ceiling crises until long after the midterm elections in November.That proposal shouldn't pose a problem for Boehner and McConnell, or for their lieutenants Eric Cantor (R-VA), Paul Ryan (R-WI), and John Cornyn (R-TX). After all, it's exactly the same debt ceiling bill they gave Republican President George W. Bush.
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On Thursday, Speaker Boehner explained, "We're still looking for the pieces to this puzzle but we do not want to default on our debt and we're not going to default on our debt," adding, "No decisions have been made. We're continuing to talk to our members."
Of course, there's no need for Boehner to continue talking. All he needs to do is what he and Mitch McConnell did in November 2004.
As it turns out, a clean debt ceiling bill is exactly what then House Speaker Dennis Hastert and future Speaker John Boehner gave Republican President George W. Bush in November 2004. That October, Bush called for his fourth hike in the nation's borrowing authority. His Treasury Secretary John Snow warned, "Given current projections, it is imperative that the Congress take action to increase the debt limit by mid-November," adding that his arsenal of fiscal tools, including tapping money intended for the civil service retirement fund, "will be exhausted."
Boehner's predecessor made it clear that President Bush had nothing to worry about. As the Washington Post recounted that October:
"Typically with Congress, they do it when they need to do it," said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "And we'll do it when we need to do it."And do it they did. But as the New York Times explained on November 17, 2004, Bush had to wait for his debt ceiling increase for a very simple reason:
Faced with the prospect of a government unable to pay its bills, the Senate voted on Wednesday to raise the federal debt limit by $800 billion.The ironies in that 2004 debt limit expansion didn't end there. Democrats rightly "noted that Bush's 2001 budget anticipated the debt ceiling would not have to be raised until 2008." But the cost of two wars, the two Bush tax cuts, TARP and revenue lost to the recession produced a hemorrhage of red ink. By the time Bush left office in January 2009, the U.S. national debt had nearly doubled. And, as it turned out, in 2004 John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Eric Cantor along with Speaker Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist all voted to enable President Bush to borrow more money to pay for a massive new health care program, the Medicare Part D prescription drug program.
Though an increase in the debt ceiling was never in doubt, Republican leaders in both houses of Congress postponed action on it last month, until after the elections, to deprive Democrats of a chance to accuse them of fiscal irresponsibility.
While Part D like Obamacare uses "risk corridors" to protect insurers and consumers from unpredictable costs in the new insurance plans, the Medicare Rx program unlike Obamacare was forecast to add hundreds of billions of dollars to the national debt. As Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch would later describe the Bush years:
"It was standard practice not to pay for things."Nevertheless, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell gave President Bush a clean, $800 billion debt ceiling increase ten years ago. They should do exactly the same thing now.