Boehner's Radicalism, Boehner's Dilemma

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JONATHAN CHAIT JULY 25, 2011

Boehner's Radicalism, Boehner's Dilemma

Bob Greenstein lays out just how radical John Boehner's debt ceiling plan is:

  • The Boehner plan calls for large cuts in discretionary programs of $1.2 trillion over the next ten years, and it then requires additional cuts that are large enough to produce another $1.8 trillion in savings to be enacted by the end of the year as a condition for raising the debt ceiling again at that time.
  • The Boehner plan contains no tax increases. The entire $1.8 trillion would come from budget cuts.
  • Because the first round of cuts will hit discretionary programs hard — through austere discretionary caps that Congress will struggle to meet — discretionary cuts will largely or entirely be off the table when it comes to achieving the further $1.8 trillion in budget reductions.
  • As a result, virtually all of that $1.8 trillion would come from entitlement programs. They would have to be cut more than $1.5 trillion in order to produce sufficient interest savings to achieve $1.8 trillion in total savings.
  • To secure $1.5 trillion in entitlement savings over the next ten years would require draconian policy changes. Policymakers would essentially have three choices: 1) cut Social Security and Medicare benefits heavily forcurrent retirees, something that all budget plans from both parties (including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan) have ruled out; 2) repeal the Affordable Care Act’s coverage expansions while retaining its measures that cut Medicare payments and raise tax revenues, even though Republicans seek to repeal many of those measures as well; or 3) eviscerate the safety net for low-income children, parents, senior citizens, and people with disabilities. There is no other plausible way to get $1.5 trillion in entitlement cuts in the next ten years. ...

That House Republicans would likely seek to reach the Boehner budget’s $1.8 trillion target in substantial part by cutting programs for the poorest and most vulnerable Americans is given strong credence by the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” bill that the House recently approved. That bill would establish global spending caps and enforce them with across-the-board budget cuts —exempting Medicare and Social Security from the across-the-board cuts while subjecting programs for the poor to the across-the-board axe. This would turn a quarter century of bipartisan budget legislation on its head; starting with the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, all federal laws of the last 26 years that have set budget targets enforced by across-the-board cuts have exempted the core assistance programs for the poor from those cuts while including Medicare among programs subject to the cuts. This component of the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” bill strongly suggests that, especially in the face of an approaching election, House Republicans looking for entitlement cuts would heavily target means-tested programs for people of lesser means (and less political power).

Meanwhile, more than 100 House Republicans have denounced the plan as too moderate:

The Cut, Cap and Balance Coalition is a group of more than 100 conservative groups and several dozen lawmakers in both chambers who have called for passage of a balanced budget amendment in exchange for a vote to raise the country’s debt ceiling. The group said in a statement Monday afternoon that the plan put forth by House Republican leaders “falls short of meeting (the coalition’s) principles.”

“Perhaps most troubling is the proposed Congressional Commission,” the coalition said in its statement, referring to a component of Boehner’s plan that calls for a bipartisan group of lawmakers to make decisions on spending cuts. “History has shown that such commissions, while well-intentioned, make it easier to raise taxes than to institute enduring budget reforms.”

The coalition also criticized Boehner’s proposal for allowing only “a symbolic vote” on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, a move that it said “minimizes (the) importance” of such an amendment.

“This Coalition is willing to sacrifice much in return for a permanent solution to this issue, but we will not sacrifice the fundamental principles of (cut, cap and balance),” the group’s statement reads.

This isn't tantamount to all signers opposing the plan. But keep in mind that Boehner has little margin for error. He won't get Democratic votes. That means a couple dozen defections would sink his bill.

So the question is, what can pass the House? It seems like any bill that Obama can sign and that can pass the Senate will lose a huge chunk of the GOP caucus. Boehner risks a coup attempt if he pushes a bill like that. Does Boehner find some way to allow a bill through the House with a mostly-Democratic voting coalition over his putative objections? What other way is there for this crisis to end?

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posted in: jonathan chait, bob greenstein, john boehner, congress, medicare

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