September 24, 2013
Obama's Debt-Ceiling Stonewall
Increases in the federal borrowing limit have often included spending reforms
President Obama, his Treasury secretary and nearly every member of his administration wants the world to believe that negotiating over raising the debt ceiling is highly unusual, and that they will not discuss the matter with congressional Republicans.
"There are not and will not be negotiations about the debt limit," Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said last week. Making his point melodramatically on Sunday, President Obama said, "We will not negotiate over whether or not America should keep its word and meet its obligations."
In reality, Congress and administrations have for decades—under both Republican and Democratic presidents—negotiated over or included spending and budget reforms as a part of debt-ceiling increases.
In 1985, President Reagan signed the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction package, which included an increase in the debt limit. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush agreed with Democrats on budget reforms that also raised the debt limit. In 2001, under President George W. Bush, Senate Democrats for months refused to raise the debt ceiling to make political hay of Mr. Bush's tax-relief plan.
Two years ago, President Obama negotiated with House Speaker John Boehner over raising the debt limit. Ultimately, these negotiations led to the sequester. While the sequester was far from ideal, it has resulted in the only spending cuts since this administration took office in 2009.
I have voted to increase the debt ceiling with no strings attached. And I do not believe the United States should default on our debt. But we are living in a terrifying new reality that few Democrats seem willing to discuss.
The national debt, if left unchecked, will eclipse our entire economic output in a mere 25 years, outstripping private investment and threatening the nation's economic health. That is the prognosis Congress's nonpartisan budget scorekeeper, the Congressional Budget Office, reported last week.
The rising debt is being driven by the skyrocketing costs of America's largest entitlement programs—Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. CBO found that "federal spending for the major health care programs and Social Security would increase to a total of 14 percent of GDP by 2038, twice the 7 percent average of the past 40 years."
This is unsustainable not just for the U.S. economy, but also for the millions of Americans—their children and grandchildren—who rely on these programs now or will turn to them in the future.
That's why it is imperative that Congress uses the impending debt ceiling to consider, frankly and honestly, how to tame the high and rising national debt. By that I mean structural entitlement reforms.
This year, I shared five bipartisan reforms with the president, Treasury Secretary Lew and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to improve the quality of health care received by those who rely on Medicare and Medicaid, while producing significant budgetary savings. These reforms include raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67, modernizing the Medigap insurance program, simplifying Medicare beneficiary cost sharing, allowing Medicare competitive bidding, and strengthening the Medicaid program through per capita caps.
All I got back was silence.
To make matters worse, in talks with Senate Republicans earlier this month, the administration even walked away from some of the reforms it had previously considered—such as changing the way inflation is accounted for in calculating federal benefits and raising the Medicare retirement age.
In these discussions, the White House refrain is that Democrats won't back changes to these programs, so Republicans just need to give over more revenue—this after socking the American people with an over $1 trillion tax increase to fund ObamaCare and the more than $600 billion the administration got from the fiscal-cliff deal. But no manner of tax increase can solve the massive weight entitlements are on our debt.
In a meeting with members of the Senate Finance Committee last week, Mr. Lew provided no plan and no solutions. He would not say how much he wants to raise the debt limit or for how long.
But Mr. Obama must negotiate. The president has done so before and should do so again. He shouldn't be afraid of doing the right thing for the country.
Mr. Hatch is ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.