By Judd Gregg - 09/30/13 10:00 AM EDT
Bob Corker, the independent-minded and thoughtful Republican senator from Tennessee, recently said on CNBC that he “did not have a good feeling “ about where this debt ceiling issue was going.
He has called the fact that there would be an agreement and a default would be avoided. Not this time, he says. He does not seem to see the way forward to an agreement.
There are a number of reasons for this lack of clarity. At the top of the list are two fairly obvious ones.
First, President Obama has abandoned the field. The White House position, as stated over and over, is that they will not negotiate on the issue of raising the debt ceiling. They have even gone so far as to say that this is purely a congressional matter.
Maybe it has escaped their notice that they do not control the entire government. Unlike the first two years of the president’s time in office, the government is now divided. In order to govern, he and his allies must negotiate with the other side, the Republican House.
This is not a matter of choice for the White House. It is a simple fact, a reality of politics in a constitutional, checks and balances system. To not negotiate is to guarantee dysfunction and inevitably push the process toward a breakdown.
Now, it may be that what the White House really wants is a breakdown. They recognize that most of the political blame and public outrage at such an event would be aimed at Republicans.
But if this were the administration’s goal, it would be a brief and pointless victory. The disruption it would cause would haunt the next three years of this presidency in ways that are not fully predictable but can safely be presumed to be negative.
The second cause of Corker’s inability to predict the outcome of this go-round on the debt ceiling arises from his own party.
The view that the debt ceiling increase should be conditioned upon repealing ObamaCare is one of the most counterproductive and foolish tactical initiatives undertaken in recent years.
This is an approach that may deliver a great deal of theater but will yield no substantive action on reducing the debt or spending. In fact, it could have the exact opposite effect, by creating a distraction from action that would produce real spending restraint, such as changing the consumer price index.
But, just like the White House, the forces in the Republican Party who are pushing their agenda of ObamaCare repeal also do not seem to be overly concerned about a default.
Theirs is a cause of purity as defined by themselves, with the side benefit of raising a lot of money for their PACs and getting a great deal of personal press coverage.
The Corker question, therefore, is where does the clarity come from? How do we avoid the incredibly self-destructive action of pushing the envelope all the way to default?
First, there have to be negotiations. The sides must actually talk to each other about options.
Second, there are clearly some issues that are not negotiable —ObamaCare will not be killed, and there will not be any tax increases — so let’s move on to the vast array of other places where agreements might be reached.
Begin with the Speaker’s suggestion that for every dollar of increase in the debt ceiling, there be a dollar of spending restraint.
But nuance that position by making the spending restraint major entitlement reforms that do not kick in now, but rather in the out years when our most serious issues of debt growth present themselves.
To the extent revenues are used, make them arise from policy changes that eliminate indefensible tax deductions. For example, why not reorient our energy policy to be market-based rather then driven by industrial-policy tax breaks like solar or wind tax subsidies and depletion allowances?
And if they really want to make progress on the debt, replace the sequester while keeping its savings targets with Medicare, Medicaid and tax reform. Make it all subject to a trigger so that the sequester does not end until the new savings are in place.
All this is possible. We do not need to go through the debilitating disruption of a debt default or a near-default.
We need just two things: The president to engage, and the Republicans who actually want to govern to grab back the microphone from their more reckless colleagues.
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. He is the CEO of SIFMA, a financial industry lobbying group.