The very first sentence in the Politico article on congressional Republicans' debt-ceiling strategy is incorrect: "It's never been easy for House Republicans to raise the debt limit."
Actually, it used to be quite easy, indeed. Between 1939, when the debt-ceiling law was originally passed, and 2010, Congress raised the debt limit without incident 89 times. Most of those increases came under a Republican president, under Republican control of at least part of Congress, or both. It suddenly stopped being "easy" for the GOP after President Obama took office.
That said, it's apparently no longer easy for the party, and Republican leaders now find themselves in an awkward spot. On the one hand, GOP policymakers have convinced themselves they deserve a reward for doing what they must do anyway, and believe they're entitled to hold the debt ceiling hostage until Democrats give them something in return. On the other hand, Republican leaders also seem to realize that a replay of the 2011 fiasco, when they undermined the economy deliberately as part of a self-imposed crisis, is a blisteringly stupid idea.
The question, then, is what the party intends to write on the ransom note: "Congressional Republicans promise to crash the economy on purpose unless Democrats give us _________."
Some wanted cuts to Social Security and Medicare, though this has apparently fallen out of favor. Others want an agreement on a budget plan that eliminates the deficit within 10 years. The leading contender, at least for now, is a demand for tax reforms.
The idea is in its infancy, according to sources involved in planning, but here's how it would work: Legislation would authorize something like a three-month bump in the debt limit while simultaneously giving the same amount of time for the House to act on its tax-reform plan.
When the House passes something, the debt limit would bet increased again, and when the Senate moves its own tax-reform product, Congress would authorize another bump in the debt ceiling. A larger increase in the borrowing limit could come if President Barack Obama signs the legislation, according to a source familiar with the thinking of the Ways and Means Committee. The plan would most likely be accompanied by a road map that lays out certain guidelines for Tax Code rewrite.
This is, to be sure, less insane than demanding $2 trillion in spending cuts, but that's not saying much.
First, as we recently talked about, Democrats actually want tax reforms, so there's no need for a hostage strategy. Policymakers could, you know, just begin policy work. Not everything has to be manufactured, self-imposed crisis -- grown-up officials, even Republicans, should at least consider the possibility of basic American governance from time to time.
Second, and more important, is that underlying principle. The goal here should not be to find a mainstream policy measure to put on the ransom note while Republicans threaten to hurt Americans; the goal should be for Republicans to stop threatening to hurt Americans and stop writing ransom notes altogether.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) on Tuesday rejected a new GOP push to link an increase in the nation's debt ceiling to an overhaul of the tax code.
The ranking member of the House Budget Committee said House Republicans need to stop threatening to default on any of the nation's bills unless they secure policy victories.
"The president has been very clear. There is no negotiating over whether or not the United States pays its bills or not. It's a fundamental principle that we should not be a deadbeat nation," Van Hollen said. "If Republicans want to consider tax reform, we've always been open to that in the context of the budget discussions."
I have no idea whether Democrats will stick to their position or not, but the idea couldn't be simpler: "We just aren't going to negotiate with anyone threatening deliberate harm to the nation." It doesn't matter if it's entitlements, tax reforms, or something else -- what matters is members of Congress acting like grown-ups. If a group of lawmakers want to work on a policy goal, they can do so without putting a gun to anyone's head.
It's time to return this to the routine paperwork it used to be: Congress approves federal spending, the executive branch follows through accordingly. When the legislative branch spends more than it takes in, the executive branch has to borrow the difference, but in order to do so, Congress has to raise the debt limit, allowing the White House to pay the bills.
Stop looking at this as an opportunity for a hostage crisis. It's crazy.