What Republicans Want in Exchange for Raising the Debt Ceiling

The federal government is expected to reach its $14.3 trillion borrowing limit on or around May 16. House Republicans have been demanding deep spending cuts in exchange for a vote to raise this ceiling, even though no congressional leader would really allow the United States government to reach this limit and default on its debt shortly afterwards, thereby destroying the global economy forever.

But what, specifically, will House Republicans demand once Congress returns from its current two-week recess with only a few days and no time to debate anything? Oh, just a constitutional amendment or arbitrary cap or three that won't address long-term problems so much as throw the operations of government into flux for no real reason.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor appears to be playing bad cop, or more accurately "tough spending cuts guy," in formulating Republican demands. Here's the rough set of proposals he's considering as conditions for raising the debt limit (via Politico):

Republicans are floating a wide range of major structural reforms that could be attached to the debt limit vote, including statutory spending caps, a balanced budget amendment and a two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases and debt limit increases. Liberals want a "clean" vote to raise the $14.3 trillion borrowing limit.

Yeah, there's no real reason to spend any time debating these extremely radical and blunt changes to federal budget law and/or The Constitution while the full faith and credit of the United States Government sits on the verge of collapse. Eric Cantor will have all the details worked out perfectly by the time Congress returns, just you wait! But for now, there are a few kinks to smooth with regard to how these spending caps and constitutional amendments would square with, say, whatever other crap was passed last week. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein considers a few slapstick scenarios:

House Republicans voted to make the Ryan budget law. But the Ryan budget includes $6 trillion in new debt over the next 10 years, which means that to become law, the Ryan budget would require a substantial increase in the debt ceiling. But before the Republicans agree to increase the debt ceiling so that the budget they passed can become law, Republicans are demanding the passage of either a balanced budget amendment that would make the Ryan budget unconstitutional or a spending cap that the Ryan budget would, in certain years (and if you're using more realistic numbers, in all years), exceed.

Wah wah wah, Ezra Klein! Why can't you just trust Eric Cantor to untangle these completely contradictory major structural reforms that no one's put much thought into? He'll figure it out. He's Eric Cantor!

The federal spending cap (as a percentage of GDP) is the most likely proposal to be worked into a debt ceiling deal, even if it's a dangerous idea that doesn't address, say, the roots of rapidly rising health care costs or other actual fiscal problems that require the careful study of experts. Why this one? One reason: Democratic Senators Claire McCaskill and Joe Lieberman support it, making it bipartisan. McCaskill is up for reelection in a red state and needs to come across serious about spending. "Spending cap" has a nice marketable ring to it, no? Serious Claire McCaskill supports the Spending Cap, because she's a no-nonsense lady. Oh, how that will play! Lieberman, meanwhile, is just doing his usual spoiler thing.

My best-case hope is that the final deal allows the the limit to be raised on its own vote, and then separate votes can be held later for these other major structural reforms and promptly killed in the Senate. Then the debate over the 2012 budget can begin and reforms can be weighed in earnest.

Let's wrap this up with The Atlantic's Derek Thompson and his soothing lullaby of confusion and annoyance over this very same issue:

The debt ceiling is a yes-or-yes question, which is to say it's a pretty dumb question. Should we vote to affirm borrowing needs we already have? Yes. Should we vote to avoid an unnecessary crisis among our creditors? Of course. Should we vote to avoid a mandatory and immediate shutdown of 40% of the government? Sounds reasonable.

But in Washington, where nothing is easy, sometimes dumb begets dumb. The debt ceiling vote, which should not exist, exists. And so the debate to raise the debt ceiling, which should not exists, also exists.

[Image via AP]