Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s plan for a debt limit increase not only would take Congress off the hook in raising the limit through 2012, it also suggests a way for President Obama and lawmakers to do the country a big favor by fixing the problem on a permanent basis.
McConnell would force the president to ask for a $2.5 trillion increase in the debt limit in three installments and, in each case, propose spending cuts to equal the increase. Congress could pass a resolution to oppose the president’s request, but, for the debt limit increase to take effect, the president would need only to veto the resolution and then convince a third of the Democrat-run Senate to sustain the veto.
Let’s go further.
In an ideal world, the president and Congress would kill the debt limit process altogether. For one thing, it’s anachronistic; other major industrialized powers do not have it. For another, it’s unnecessary; Congress has all the power it needs to control the debt by enacting tax and spending bills.
In addition, as the experience of recent weeks makes clear, the debt limit process has become increasingly dangerous. The issue is too easy for candidates to demagogue. More lawmakers have won office after promising never to raise the debt limit, despite the whole thing putting America’s credit rating at serious risk.
For years, debt limit politics has pitted two forces against one another – an administration, which must protect the nation’s finances, and an opposition party, which seeks to score political points from the rising debt. The basic dynamics don’t change no matter which party controls the White House or Congress.
But, if policymakers aren’t ready to kill the debt limit, let’s do the next best thing. Let’s expand the McConnell plan so that this administration and any future one can do the right thing and raise the debt limit as necessary, while this and any future opposition party can play politics by opposing it.
Here’s my proposal:
First, require the president to issue a public report every time the debt passes a milestone, such as a $1 trillion increase, or issue a report about the debt on a regular basis, such as quarterly.
Second, empower Congress to send the president a resolution that would block an increase of the debt beyond any level of Congress’ choosing.
Third, empower Congress to try to override a presidential veto of any such resolution.
That way, the president would need only to gather a third of one chamber to sustain his veto, and Congress would get the opportunity to rail against more debt.
It’s not ideal, but it’s a lot better than what we have now. And, because the president and Congress would enact this proposal on a permanent basis, it would help future presidents and Congresses of both parties equally.
Lawrence J. Haas is former Communications Director to Vice President Gore and, before that, to the White House Office of Management and Budget. He's now a public affairs consultant who writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs, including fiscal policy.
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