House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has a curious habit: he likes to make up "rules" on the fly. It's a bit like Bill Maher's affinity for "new rules," except Boehner isn't the least bit funny.
We've seen this a few too many times. In 2011, the Republican Speaker came up with a "rule" that said any increase in the debt ceiling would have to be accompanied by an identical decrease in debt reduction. How'd he come up with this? No one knows; it was just an arbitrary standard Boehner came up with, which he promptly labeled a "rule." Boehner was equally wedded to a made-up "rule" about only passing House bills that enjoyed at least 218 Republican votes.
And last week, the Speaker came up with an entirely new rule: "The sequester will be in effect until there are cuts and reforms that put us on a path to balance the budget in the next 10 years." Again, there's nothing substantive or policy-driven by Boehner's made-up standards -- he just manufactures rules out of thin air and expects all of Washington to honor them.
Boehner may not have fully thought this one through.
House Republicans have centered their messaging around the Senate's unwillingness to pass a budget, claiming it renders them fiscally irresponsible. But moderates are privately fretting about their 2014 budget, which Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Speaker John Boehner say will balance within 10 years.
Some of these concerns are beginning to spill into the open.
"We are saying a 10-year balance -- that's tougher than the last Ryan budget," said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a former Budget Committee member and currently an Appropriations cardinal. "There could be a significant number of Republicans that say, 'I'm not going there because it would be too dramatic.' I have said to my constituents, nobody is talking about changing Social Security and Medicare if you're 55 years or over.' I've been selling it for three or four years that way. So have many other members. Well, to balance in 10, that 55 years is going to move up to 58, 59, 60. It makes us look like we're going back on what we were telling people when we were trying to sell this."
One of the details that often goes overlooked is that the House Republican budget plan from the last Congress -- the one that included all the spending cuts, entitlement reforms, and tax breaks the GOP are desperate to have -- didn't bring the federal budget into balance until 2040. That's not a typo -- under the House Republican plan, written by Paul Ryan, the United States would run deficits every year for nearly three decades, and then might reach a balanced budget 27 years from now if optimistic projections are met.
And that plan included spending cuts so severe, GOP candidates were afraid to talk about them out loud in public.
This year, however, thanks to a new "rule" embraced by Boehner and his cohorts, the new House Republican plan intends to balance the budget by 2023, instead of 2040. Why does that matter? Because trying to eliminate the entirety of the deficit in one decade instead of three necessarily means ridiculously drastic cuts.
How bad would it be? Greg Sargent tracked down the numbers.
Getting rid of the deficit in 10 years with no new revenues would require extraordinarily deep cuts to the federal government. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently ran the numbers and concluded it would require across the board cuts totaling anywhere from one-sixth to one-third of the government, depending on whether defense and/or entitlements are included.
And the Speaker is not only using this "rule" to block a compromise on the sequester, he's also using it as a standard for a budget fight.
What Boehner may not realize is that there are midterm elections next year, and congressional Democrats would be giddy beyond recognition to get House Republicans on record supporting cuts this severe to programs the American mainstream strongly supports.