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Ponnuru: How to make a debt-limit deal and avoid disaster

Published: Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

We are nearing the limit of the borrowing authority that Congress has given the federal government.

Almost everyone agrees that the debt ceiling needs to be raised. Not even the flintiest conservative has advanced a plan for bringing the U.S. budget deficit to zero in the next few weeks. And the consequences of hitting the debt limit seem highly likely to be disastrous – even coming near it in 2011 seems to have hurt the economy.

Ideally, Republicans and Democrats would agree to couple the increase in the debt ceiling with measures to address the underlying problem that keeps leading to increases: The mismatch between our spending commitments and revenue. The debt limit provides the only occasion on which Congress and the president have to take responsibility for the amount of debt their fiscal policies generate.

This spring, I outlined some ideas for reducing the dangers of hitting the debt ceiling, and some ideas for reducing long-term debt that might generate bipartisan consensus. Watch the news for a few minutes, and you can see that no such consensus has jelled. No serious attempt has even been made to create one.

Republicans, meanwhile, have adopted an unrealistic sense of how much of their policy agenda they can achieve by tying it to the debt limit. (An unrealistic sense of leverage seems to be a pattern with them this year.) Many of them want to force President Barack Obama to make major changes to his healthcare law, and in return give him nothing but the debt-limit increase.

There is no precedent for the satisfaction of such demands. Look back at every previous piece of legislation that raised the debt limit while also making changes to other government policies, and almost always the debt limit was the occasion for a bipartisan deal rather than the achievement of only one party’s goals.

The one partial exception came in 2011, when Obama agreed to spending cuts without getting any tax increases. But even that deal illustrates the constraints of the debt limit as a tool for advancing one party’s agenda. Republicans had to accept that half the spending cuts would come from defense, which Democrats liked more than they did. And for all the wailing that sequestration has produced, it was more modest than what conservatives are asking for this year. It was not a structural change to the welfare state or a reduction in its scope.

So the question now is – or should be – whether any genuinely bipartisan deal could be coupled with an increase in the debt ceiling. Reaching a deal would require what all voluntary exchanges do: a symmetric inequality of value. Republicans would give ground on policy A to gain it on policy B. A deal would be possible because Republicans valued B more than A, and Democrats valued A more than B.

So, for example, Republicans might offer a temporary increase in spending from the levels of sequestration in order to delay the time when the Internal Revenue Service starts fining people for not buying insurance (which is scheduled for the spring of 2015). Republicans might do this because they think that delaying the mandate will make it easier for them eventually to get rid of the healthcare law, and Democrats might do it because they think their law will grow more popular with time. In that case, they couldn’t both be right, but they could both be happy about the deal at the time they made it.

At the same time, a deal should include policies that minimize the potential damage of a future debt-limit standoff. The most important one would be a law stipulating that even if the debt limit is breached in the future, the government will still be authorized to make debt-service payments in full, taking a default off the table. Republicans in the House have already passed a bill that would come close to doing this. Once this change is enacted, hitting the debt limit would mean having a partial government shutdown – which isn’t great, but not the disaster a default would be.

Could any of this happen? Well, most Republicans have already backed off the demands that their maximalists have been making: A majority of the House has already voted to keep the government funded without defunding Obamacare (but making changes to it). House Speaker John Boehner has said that he would rely on Democratic votes if necessary to prevent a default. And he has also, at least through leaks, put relief from sequestration the table.

When the House Republicans passed their bill to reduce the risks of a default, they implicitly acknowledged that the threat of default doesn’t actually provide the leverage to get anything constructive done, or at least anything worth the potential costs. They should follow that logic to its conclusion. Republicans can end the government shutdown, avoid a default and get a policy victory – but only if Democrats get one, too.

• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review.

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