Tuesday, the House of Representatives will vote on, and likely pass, a conservative Republican plan called “Cut, Cap, and Balance.” The package will include some immediate, as-yet unspecified spending cuts, a statutory cap to keep spending below 18 percent of GDP, and a promised separate vote on a Constitutional amendment that requires Congress to maintain a balanced budget, but essentially forbids any future tax increases.
It would also raise the debt ceiling through 2012 — an ancillary benefit for Republicans who are looking for any way to pin the consequences of a debt default, should one happen, on Democrats. Indeed, the GOP feigned shock and anger Monday when the White House, as expected, issued an official veto threat — turns out President Obama’s the one threatening to wreak havoc on the country.
Of course, later in the week, the Senate will follow suit, and there Cut, Cap, and Balance is expected to fail.
For Republicans, it’s the perfect alignment of popular sounding policies — “spending cuts” a “balanced budget” and, finally, an end to this debt limit brinksmanship — minus the a scintilla of accountability or transparency. And for Republicans trying to make nice with conservative activists, it will give them cover to later vote for a much more modest plan to cut some spending, raise the debt limit, avoid default. But the details have been intentionally obscured by most conservatives, and they reveal the plan to be the most radical fiscal policy the GOP has aligned behind in years — one that makes the Republican’s current budget proposal to phase out Medicare appear moderate by comparison.
Indeed, it’s likely that Republican leaders would never push for such a package if they thought it stood a chance of becoming law, or of changing the Constitution. But it doesn’t. So this week’s efforts come with great political upside for the GOP and none of the peril that would entail actually complying with Cut, Cap, and Balance. It gives them an opening to sucker punch vulnerable Democrats seeking re-election in 2012, who’ve articulated support for a balanced budget amendment in the past but will oppose this one.
Monday morning, NRSC communications director Brian Walsh explained the strategy. “Interesting - Today Show anchor called the House vote on a [balanced budget] amendment a ‘tea party backed plan,’” he said in the first of a series of tweets. “Really? Its not just the tea party. Every single Senate Republican - moderate and conservative alike, is cosponsoring a Balanced Budget Amendment. And Dems like Brown, Nelson, Stabenow, Tester etc. all campaigned on a BBA in ‘06. Now they’re flip flopping. Will have to explain.”
The ads write themselves, but will require bamboozling the public into believing that all things called Balanced Budget Amendments are identical.
As conservative anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist acknowledged on MSNBC Monday, “That’s why the present Republican Senate, every Republican Senator has agreed to a Constitutional amendment that requires a two-thirds vote to raise taxes and doesn’t simply allow you to get around the balanced budget amendment, because there’s an emergency.
Even a simpler Constitutional requirement that the government maintain a balanced budget would be fraught with risk. What happens in an economic or foreign policy emergency? What happens if Congress recognizes the need to spend more money, but lacks the will to raise the revenue needed to pay for it.
The version of the BBA Republicans are pushing now goes much further. It would impose supermajority requirements — two-thirds of both the House and Senate — to raise taxes. That means it’s really a formula for slashing spending at an epic clip, and, invariably, for devastating key safety net programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. It just doesn’t say so explicitly.
And to meet a spending cap frozen at 18 percent of GDP, the government would have to shrink itself to the size it was in 1966, one year after the creation of Medicare, when life expectancy was lower, health care was cheaper, and the country was younger, and smaller in just about every way.
Democratic leaders have explained Cut, Cap, and Balance as a Trojan Horse to end Medicare, and that’s basically fair. But their vulnerable incumbents will have to be vigilant about explaining that they weren’t simply “for a balanced budget amendment before they were against it.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.