An open letter to Speaker John Boehner regarding the debt ceiling

Dear Speaker Boehner,

I was overjoyed to learn that you will be attempting to move a debt ceiling increase before you leave office. This is unquestionably the right thing to do: for fiscal conservatives, for your party, and for your country. Failing to do so would open the door to the possibility that the next Speaker’s tenure would begin with an unwinnable confrontation with the White House resulting, at best, in abject defeat and, at worst, in a constitutional crisis.

Many in the conservative wing of your Republican Party believe that any debt limit increase should be accompanied by significant spending cuts and that refusing to raise the debt limit provides them leverage to obtain concessions from Democrats that would otherwise be unattainable. In the past that was also your position, including during the explosive confrontation of 2011. But the premise behind this strategy is unsound. Though it may seem that needed increases give Congress leverage, they in fact only provide rhetorical opportunities. In the end, Congress will have no choice but to send the president a bill he is mostly happy to accept, which is likely to be a nearly clean increase.

The few instances in which deficit reduction policies were attached to debt ceiling confrontations—namely 1985, 1996, and 2011—do not disprove this point, because they came at moments in which both parties were forced to accept the need for deficit reductions. These moments of deficit reduction were possible due to a run up in interest on the national debt by 1985, and strong Republican victories in 1994 and 2010. There is a good case to be made that attaching debt ceiling negotiations to the larger fiscal debates actually limited fiscal conservatives’ effectiveness in these instances. You very wisely moved away from making debt ceiling increases the focal point for fiscal policymaking after 2011, suggesting that you and many of your colleagues learned the right lessons about the volatility and ineffectiveness of this tactic. The fact that the need to increase the debt ceiling (which your Republican colleagues resisted doing without extensive conditions) cut off fiscal negotiations in the President’s favor in October 2013 reinforces the point.

Far from allowing Democrats to dictate the future course of spending, then, increasing the debt ceiling so as to withdraw it as a matter of concern from ongoing fiscal debates will actually strengthen Republicans’ negotiating position. As Republicans seek to coalesce around a budgetary path for the next decade acceptable to nearly the whole conference, an increase of the debt ceiling will allow them to focus their attention squarely on questions of spending and work to craft an appropriate spending bill ahead of the December 11 expiration of the continuing resolution just passed.

At that point, if the new Speaker is able to pass a spending bill the Senate agrees to, they may confront President Obama’s veto pen, and a government shutdown might well ensue. That would be unfortunate for the country and needlessly demoralizing to the federal workforce—and it might well be bad politics for Republicans. But with the debt ceiling out of the picture, nobody could credibly allege it would be needlessly putting the nation’s whole future at stake. The American people would be able to assess Republicans’ budget against the president’s unwillingness to accept it, and judge accordingly. If the debt ceiling remained in play, however, the White House could occupy the moral high ground by constantly raising alarms about the possibility of default.

If you find a way to pass a debt ceiling increase, it is absolutely certain that some Republicans will denounce you. After all, avoiding a debt ceiling fight is precisely what Harry Reid and the President want you to do. But having this crowd judge you harshly is already a foregone conclusion, as you acknowledged in your decision to resign. You have little to lose, and the country has much to gain. So do opponents of long-term budget deficits, if they truly want to get their act together and pass a viable plan rather than merely spouting off (which, unfortunately, is not entirely clear).

Best of all, of course, would be if you could engineer a deal that removes the debt ceiling entirely and replaces it with process reforms more likely to produce meaningful change, such as bringing entitlement spending into the annual budgeting process. Ending your time in office with such a lasting improvement to your country’s economic and political stability may be impossible this late in the day.

But it points the way: the larger the debt ceiling increase (or the longer the suspension), the better. Relieving the 114th Congress of the burden of dealing with the debt ceiling again would be a great service, especially to the new speaker. Rather than beginning with a fight that former Speaker Gingrich called “a dead loser” and likely worsening intraparty tensions, the new Republican leadership could instead begin the work of unifying the party behind a coherent policy vision for the future.

With respect for all of your service through these difficult years,

Philip Wallach