GREGG: A two-step solution to Congress's budget dilemma

Congress is coming up on “drop-dead dates” for votes on the debt ceiling and a continuing resolution.

These types of events are only challenged by the dates for taking a congressional recess as action-forcing times on the congressional calendar.

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This year there is a great deal of hubbub being generated around these two opportunities. This has happened before, most notably with the government shutdown of 1995.           

Of course, good, logical and orderly governance would not have to rely on these types of events to generate responsible action. But with no appropriations bills, no budget and an exploding deficit and debt situation, it is fairly obvious that orderly government is not part of Congress’s modus operandi.

So here we are: Congress at a “governing” point, be it inherently chaotic in its execution.

What should it do? First, it should address the problem, which is that we – especially our children – cannot afford the government we have put in place.

This fact did not sneak up on us. Most of the problem is driven by years of promising more than we can afford to deliver in entitlement programs, especially healthcare. It is a course radically compounded last year by the passage of the Democratic healthcare bill, which exploded entitlement obligations in face of already staggering unfunded liabilities.

But this time is also different. The baby boomers are in full retirement mode. We are going from 35 million retired Americans to 70 million within the next seven years. There is a new retiree added every eight seconds.

Baby boomers are expensive people. They have been promised a great deal, with most of that promise being paid for by massive borrowing from China and other solvent nations. The result is that the next generation gets the bill.

Of course, the price of all this spending and borrowing is potential insolvency, loss of world competitiveness, a reduction in our children’s standard of living and less security as a nation.

So maybe it is time to have an action-forcing event. Maybe it is no longer responsible to add to the debt if there is no plan to mitigate that debt in the future.

It is a basic tenet of the American culture that every generation passes onto the next generation a more prosperous and safer nation. This will not happen on our present course. Action is needed.

But, let’s not do this in an arbitrary and counterproductive way that potentially leads to a government shutdown. The American people in the last election did not ask for chaos. They asked for fiscal responsibility.

A way to create action on spending and the debt without undertaking political self-destruction is to set up a two-step event. Use the continuing resolution, which will have to be dealt with approximately a month and half before the debt ceiling, to set the table of action to justify the debt-ceiling vote.

One approach would be to pass as part of the continuing resolution what would amount to a hybrid form of reconciliation instruction. The continuing resolution would direct the appropriate committees to report back bills prior to the debt-ceiling vote that would reduce federal spending over five years by the estimated amount that the debt ceiling would have to be raised.

Thus, the two events could be used in tandem to create an orderly, understandable and effective way of addressing our looming debt crisis. This would be better than simply holding a debt-ceiling vote where if the “no” votes were to carry the day, we would end up with a government shutdown, the likes of which was fatal to those of us pushing fiscal responsibility in 1995.

There is considerable political mileage to just voting “no” on the ceiling. But that only works if enough people vote “yes,” so it passes and there is not a shutdown. Shutdowns are messy things. Social security checks do not go out, veterans hospitals close, soldiers in the field do not get paid.

The American people do not want this type of ineptness. They want Republicans to lead and to govern. This is an opportunity to do just that. Pass a continuing resolution that will drive real reform and thus justify raising the debt ceiling as a responsible act of conservative governance.


Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and also as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee.