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Debt Be Not Proud

Jan 17, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 17 • By YUVAL LEVIN AND WILLIAM KRISTOL
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That means picking fights they can win rather than forcing confrontations they are sure to lose. It means offering serious reforms and spending reductions that the public will deem reasonable and the Democrats will find difficult to reject, and so creating the conditions for further improvement.

The Democrats’ unfinished business offers Republicans the opportunity to do this early, if they act quickly to define the budget and debt-ceiling debates, and if they recognize that the decisive battle of this Congress will be the fight over the 2012 budget—which begins with the president’s State of the Union address next month and the Republican budget resolution in March. The remnants of the previous Congress, therefore, should be dispatched quickly, and in a way that sets the stage for the main event.

Early in the winter, perhaps even before the president’s State of the Union address, the House should pass a single measure that enacts the unavoidable increase in the debt limit (attaching to it strict spending discipline measures, as proposed below, to make sure that future increases can be avoided) and puts in place a continuing resolution for the remainder of the 2011 budget year. That resolution should disburse domestic discretionary spending for the rest of fiscal 2011 at 2008 levels, thereby reducing such spending by more than $50 billion over the rest of this year and paving the way for even more significant reductions in 2012.

The bill should also require that all unused stimulus money, unused prior-year earmark money, unobligated balances in agency budgets, and repayments of TARP and bailout funds be directed immediately and exclusively to debt reduction. And it should require every agency of the executive branch to report to Congress by May 1 on exactly how it will adjust its operations—line item by line item—to return to its full-year 2008 spending levels next year and to even lower levels over the rest of the decade.

President Obama and the Democrats would of course recoil from such cuts. But legislation like this would be difficult for them to oppose. It would represent a modest spending freeze at levels deemed adequate just three years ago, in the midst of the Great Recession, and it would only be a temporary measure as the 2012 budget debate begins. Obama and the Democrats would find it difficult to paint such a measure as reckless or unreasonable. For Republicans, this measure would offer many advantages beyond its sheer spending reductions. It would tie the increase in the debt limit made necessary by the reckless spending of the past few years to concrete efforts to reverse that spending and reduce the debt. It would send a clear message that spending is going down, not up. It would take the possibility of a government shutdown off the table.

It would, in other words, move the debate onto ground that favors Republicans rather than Democrats. Following the debt-ceiling/continuing resolution legislation, Republicans could introduce a series of rescission measures that make further cuts in 2011 spending—for instance, enacting a hiring freeze for the federal workforce and reducing or terminating funding for public broadcasting, various corporate subsidies, Amtrak subsidies, and the like. Some of these will make it through the Senate, others will not. Some will be vetoed, while some might be enacted. No matter the outcome, Republicans will be fighting on friendly turf—championing the sort of sensible spending restraint they were elected to advance even as the 2012 budget fight proceeds, and keeping the president and Senate Democrats on the defensive all year, rather than engaging in dramatic standoffs that favor the White House.

If Republicans resist getting caught up in the heat of the moment, if they understand that the 2012 budget fight must be the real focus of their energies, they have a chance to make a virtue of necessity, and to begin the new Congress by scoring some serious gains and building momentum for more.

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