(Quin Hillyer, Liberty Headlines) Not only is Congress facing gale-force budgetary winds this month, but not even conservatives within Congress can agree on spending priorities when faced with high deficits, a debt ceiling, and a public demanding significant hurricane relief.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has informed Congress that the nation will hit its statutory debt ceiling no later than the end of this month – meaning that unless the debt ceiling is lifted, the nation will start defaulting on some of its debts. Various steps can be taken to ward off the worst of the defaults, but if they build up substantially, at some point the national economy would start to collapse.
Conservatives usually oppose hikes in the debt ceiling unless some sort of spending cuts or disciplines are paired with it. Congressional leaders, however, seem determined to go in the other direction: They plan to raise the debt ceiling in conjunction with providing relief for victims of Hurricanes Harvey and (in anticipation) Irma. The idea, of course, is to make it politically hard to vote against hiking the debt ceiling, because (so the theory goes) legislators will not want to be accused of opposing disaster relief.
A survey released Wednesday by respected pollster Morning Consult shows that a large plurality of the public believes disaster relief right now should be Congress’s “top priority,” with 62 percent saying relief should be provided even if it adds to the annual deficit and only 29 percent being happy with Congress’s response so far to the Harvey.
But this forced pairing of the debt ceiling issue with aid for hurricane victims has conservatives nearly apoplectic. A broad coalition of them released a letter Wednesday demanding that “major fiscal reforms” – in other words, more spending discipline, rather than the added spending on hurricane relief – accompany any hike in the debt ceiling.
As for hurricane relief, Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who chairs the solidly conservative House Freedom Caucus, had a column published in the Washington Examiner Wednesday demanding a “clean” bill on hurricane relief, tied neither to the debt ceiling nor to any other, non-disaster-related spending.
“The people of Texas have seen their lives turned upside down,” he wrote. “Their road ahead will be difficult enough without Washington, D.C., needlessly getting in the way. Congress, don’t play politics with recovery.”
But even Meadows’s position is fiscally less stringent than that of the powerful conservative campaign-financing group, the Club for Growth. It doesn’t want the “clean” disaster-relief bill advocated by Meadows; It demands that “offsetting” spending cuts accompany hurricane assistance.
“Disasters like Harvey may be unpredictable, but we know with 100 percent certainty that they will occur,” said Club President David McIntosh, a former House member from Indiana [bold-face type and Italics from the Club web site]. “Congress needs to stop using the ‘emergency’ label as an excuse for politicians to spend money without paying for it. All disaster relief should always be paid for. Period.”
McIntosh did agree with other conservatives that tying hurricane relief to the debt ceiling vote is “abhorrent.”
All of this activity comes as Congress also struggles to meet the fiscal-year deadline of Sept. 30 to pass Appropriations bills that finance the “discretionary” parts of the federal government (in other words, everything but automatic “entitlements” such as Social Security and Medicare, plus interest on the debt). As is often the case, Congress may instead pass some temporary stop-gap measures to avoid a “government shutdown,” but conservatives fear that every time Congress passes such a bill, it also either lards it up with local “pork” projects or avoids savings conservatives have worked to achieve.
(A centrist fiscal-watchdog group called the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has a helpful explainer on how shutdowns and the debt limit work, at this link.)
In the midst of all this, another conservative, U.S. Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, has proposed a fundamental reform to the whole practice of setting and then regularly raising the government’s debt limit.
“As the debt ceiling is currently constructed,” he wrote, “it is nothing more than an arbitrary political goal that tends to produce more crisis theater than reform. Budgetary experts on the left and right have increasingly come to the conclusion that the debt limit no longer prevents, curbs or restrains debt.”
Lankford proposed replacing the current practice of pegging the debt ceiling to a particular number, and instead set it at a specific “date certain” – but make it easy to raise quickly “only if the [annual] deficit is going down.”
“For example, the debt limit could increase every two years with a signature from the president if the deficit has been reduced to a pre-set target. However, if the deficit has not reduced to the pre-set target in the past two years, Congress would be required to debate the issue and raise the debt limit [only by going] through regular order. A checkpoint with targets could create a stronger pattern of fiscal accountability.”
Few others, though, seem to be thinking in such a long-term way. The House Wednesday morning did pass a fairly “clean” relief bill for Harvey, without tying it to the debt ceiling issue. Senate leaders, however, still say they are intent on tying the two issues together – with the biggest dispute being not about whether to tie the two together, but about whether the debt-ceiling hike should be a small or a large one.
It remains to be seen whether conservatives can stop this train.
After this article was first published, President Trump sided with Democratic leaders to support a short-term debt-ceiling-relief provision, tied to disaster relief. If passed, it will require yet another debt ceiling battle in just three months.Click here for reuse options!
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