Opinion | The GOP says Biden is MIA on debt talks. But where are its demands?

Opinion | The GOP says Biden is MIA on debt talks. But where are its demands?

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How do you negotiate with someone who has no idea what they want?

This is the challenge for President Biden as Republicans say he must (A) satisfy their fiscal demands before they raise the debt limit; although they (B) cannot decide what those requirements actually are; and they (C) have zero credibility on delivering the 218 votes of the House on whatever these demands ultimately turn out to be.

Republicans were fine with the last president signing $4.7 trillion in new deficits into law even before Covid-19 hit (plus, trillions more after). However, now that a Democrat is president, the GOP’s resurgent deficit hawks decided that something had to be done about the nation’s fiscal health.

It is not clear what the Something is, however, beyond taking a valuable pledge: the country’s debt ceiling.

This is the legal limit on how much the government can borrow to pay off bills that previous Congresses have already agreed to. Not raising the debt ceiling would force the federal government to renege on some of those commitments, possibly missing payments on obligations such as interest payments, Social Security benefits and military pay. Other possible consequences of even an accidental default include, in the near term, a global financial crisis; and, in the long run, higher borrowing costs because the United States would no longer look like the safe and reliable borrower we have always been.

Higher borrowing costs mean, of course, bigger deficits in the future. If Republicans have recently found religion in fiscal responsibility, they seem to still be sorting out the exact theological principles.

The rest of the GOP deficit reduction plan is still TBD. Republicans say they want less debt. Unfortunately, they have ruled out almost any mathematical means of achieving this result.

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To wit: They won’t raise taxes (rather, they’ve pledged to lower taxes further); they will not affect Social Security or Medicare; they will not cut defense or veterans programs; and they would not zero out the rest of the non-defense discretionary budget, as would be required if they picked up all of Trump’s tax cuts and took all those other spending categories off the table, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Don’t worry: At least Republicans are still vowing to cut “wakeism” from the budget! (This apparently means defunding the FBI.)

Biden, for his part, has at least submitted fiscal proposals on paper. I take issue with some elements of his budget, including some of his math. For example, the president’s budget projections do not take into account the cost of extending most of Trump’s tax cuts, which Biden now officially supports. But at least his ideas are out there for the rest of us to appreciate and Republicans to oppose.

Republicans, on the other hand, appear to have abandoned any pretense of a counteroffer. They have no budget, not even the basic outlines of one.

In a letter in late March, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) accused the president of being “missing in action” in the debt negotiations. Never mind, apparently, McCarthy’s lack of concrete positions beyond mere words about “reducing excessive non-defense government spending” (which is excessive?) and advocating “policies to grow our economy and to keep Americans safe, including measures to lower energy costs.” (Okay, how?)

The same day, on CNBC, McCarthy defended his group’s lack of a budget, saying, “The budget has nothing to do with the debt ceiling.” Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, used much the same language, telling the Hill: “I don’t think the budget is about the spending cap.”

Increasing the debt ceiling is about fulfilling past obligations; budget proposals deal with future spending and tax decisions. These things should not be connected. Congress must pass a clean increase or suspension of the debt limit without preconditions, just as Republicans agreed to do repeatedly when Donald Trump was president. Since then, however, Republicans have tried to conflate two unrelated things, treating one as a useful pawn to force (again, TBD) changes on the other.

Last week, House Budget Committee Chair Jodey Arrington (R-Tex.) let slip the real reason there is neither a detailed GOP fiscal plan nor a concrete set of principles for one. Convincing 218 lawmakers (ie, a majority of the House) to commit to a budget is “not as easy as when I was a freshman here,” he said.

In other words: The GOP caucus is a cacophonous mess. Republicans don’t know what they want; they just know they don’t want what the Democrats are offering. Which is reminiscent of the dynamics of many other major political debates in recent years.

And yet Republicans continue to demand that Biden sit down, negotiate and make concessions. Whenever they do, the rest of us must respond: Concessions to what?

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