Friday, July 22, 2011

What happens in 2015?

Consider this scenario: President Palin (or Romney or Perry or Pawlenty or whoever) is sworn in with great jubilation among movement conservatives in January 2013. Voter distaste with Democrats also led to the crushing defeat for Democratic Congressional incumbents, leaving Republicans with hefty majorities in the House and Senate. In a paroxysm of celebration, Republicans pass the Ryan budget, slashing taxes and putting major reforms in Medicare years down the road. However, the growth promised by advocates of this budget does not materialize, and (as the budget estimates) the federal government runs huge deficits for the first two years of the new president's term. Frustrated with a series of broken economic promises, voters turn Republicans out in massive numbers in the 2014 midterms. Though Republicans cling to a narrow majority in the Senate, they are wiped out in the House, and an exultant Nancy Pelosi reclaims the title of Speaker.

In passing the Ryan budget, Congress also upped the debt ceiling by a trillion or so, but perpetual deficits mean that the ceiling is coming awfully close, and federal spending is due to break it in early August 2015. So now, in May, the president must go on bended knee to Speaker Pelosi, who demands tax increases as the price for her caucus supporting an increase in the debt ceiling. As the Speaker tells the press after the tenth of her many meeting with the president:
Since 2000, we have cut taxes for the wealthiest ten percent of Americans to record lows and have nothing to show for it but exploding deficits and a stagnating economy for the lower ninety percent. Polls show that Americans support an increase in taxes on the wealthiest, who have the most to give and who have gained the most from our economy. It would be irresponsible to increase the debt ceiling without increasing our ability to pay for our spending. I hope the president will compromise for the sake of our nation's future.
And what could Republicans say to this? Again, there is the wailing and gnashing of teeth in markets across the globe about America's ability to pay its debts. Again, the Washington summer dissolves into rancor and cut-throat battle. Welcome to the Battle of the Budget Part II (of many, many parts).

The above scenario may very well not happen, but a Republican president will, at some point in the future, face a Congress wholly controlled by Democrats. Every Republican president since Eisenhower has faced at least one Congress totally dominated by Democrats. On the other hand, Bill Clinton is the only Democrat after Truman who has dealt with a Congress totally controlled by Republicans. Jimmy Carter is the last president who never faced any house of Congress controlled by the opposing political party. And every president in the living memory has increased the debt in raw dollars, requiring increases in the debt ceiling.

If dynamic of the current debt ceiling debate continues into the future, we could easily find the country grinding into a kind of financial-political paralysis every few years that one party controls one branch (or two branches) of Congress while another controls the White House. The Founders believed in certain kinds of brakes on governmental power, but I'm not sure that this specific kind is the most helpful (or even if it would not increase government power in the long run through increasing dysfunction). Under this current dynamic, Congress votes for, and the president signs, budgets demanding certain kinds of spending only to later fight about how to pay for this spending (via borrowing, tax increases, future spending cuts, and so forth). Normal prudential politics would seem to suggest that you agree (implicitly or explicitly) to agree paying for some spending before you agree to that spending.

Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, will have to weigh the implications of the current debt-ceiling discussion tactics for future administrations and Congresses. These implications might be problematic for the functioning of government and conservative goals.

(Crossposted at FrumForum As usual, there is no endorsement of or responsibility for the headline and accompanying picture.)

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