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The Six Month Hostage Reprieve Is A Disaster

A lot of commentators have emphasized the similarities between John Boehner's debt ceiling plan and Harry Reid's. (See Nate Silver and, to a slightly lesser extent, Ezra Klein.) It's true that Reid imposes about the same level of cuts, and that both create a commission to adopt further deficit reduction. The one difference, though, is highly significant. Boehner would only extend the debt ceiling another six months, and hinge the next extension upon the adopting of a deficit-reduction plan by a bipartisan commission.

Republicans have repeatedly attacked President Obama for opposing this element for partisan reasons -- he doesn't want another debt ceiling fight before his election. Of course, if that's correct, then Republicans also have a partisan motivation here. But forget motive. Suppose you approach this question from a standpoint of perfect neutrality about either the outcome of the next election or the substantive policy outcome. Should you care whether we extend the debt ceiling for six months or for 18? Yes, you should care a lot. You should favor the Democratic approach.

Boehner's plan requires Democrats and Republicans to agree on $1.8 trillion in deficit reduction, or the debt ceiling won't be lifted. Of course, the very reason we're not passing a grand bargain right now is that the two parties can't agree -- Democrats want a mix of higher revenue and lower spending, while Republicans insist on reducing the deficit entirely on the spending side. There's no reason to think the outcome would be any different in six months.

So what's the rationale here? Well, Boehner gets to appease Republicans who don't like lifting the debt ceiling -- you get another crack at it in six months. He extends the financial and political chaos into an election year, threatening Obama (and threatening the economy in Obama's reelection year.) And it lets Republicans recreate the scenario we were just in -- they insist on total victory, and assume Democrats will compromise rather than allow disaster to ensue.

Today's Wall Street Journal editorial lays it out:

In the second stage, the House and Senate would convene a 12-member joint select committee with a deficit reduction goal of $1.8 trillion by November. The majority and minority of both chambers would each make three assignments, and any plan that secured seven votes or more would get an up-or-down vote in both chambers with no amendments.

The danger for the GOP is that the committee could end up proposing tax increases, since the committee's only remit is the deficit, not the larger fiscal landscape or the size of government. A poorly chosen Republican nominee could defect, and any structural change to entitlements almost certainly can't pass the Senate.

Then again, unless the plan passed, Mr. Obama couldn't request the additional $1.6 trillion debt ceiling increase that he would soon need.

Now, you can see the reason Republicans would like this idea. They want to cut entitlements, but they're afraid to do so unilaterally. They need Democratic cover. Many Democrats are willing to do that in return for higher revenue, but Republicans won't accept that. So their goal is to use the debt ceiling as a hostage, to force Democrats to give them cover on entitlement cuts without giving in on taxes.

It's a good plan for Republicans and a bad plan for Democrats. But it's also a bad plan for the United States of America. Conservatives have been pointing out that debt ceiling hikes are historically short term. That's true! But they're also historically routine votes, rather than high stakes hostage crises.

This is why the ratings agencies have said that Boehner's bill will probably lead to a downgrade and Reid's won't. That fact by itself seems to be an enormous factor.

Now, you might ask what the big difference is between postponing the next crisis six months and postponing it eighteen months. Ideally, we'd abolish the debt ceiling vote altogether, but I don't see Republicans agreeing to that. But I could see some reason for improvement. If Obama wins reelection, some Republicans may attribute it to their extremist posturing over the debt ceiling, and decide to take a more reasonable approach next time. And if Obama wins, some or all of the Bush tax cuts should have expired, considerably easing the debt picture. If a Republican wins, the House will forget all about its antipathy to raising the debt ceiling, and we'll just postpone the crisis until the next time we have a GOP House and a Democratic president. (And, hey, maybe President Perry will think to get rid of the debt ceiling.)