What concession will President Trump extract in exchange for his signature on legislation raising the debt ceiling? That’s the question buzzing about Washington during Congress’ Memorial Day recess. It’s an important question – the answer will demonstrate just how serious was candidate Trump when he campaigned on a promise to “drain the swamp.” If he ultimately agrees to sign a “clean” debt ceiling increase – that is, legislation that simply raises the debt ceiling without any attached spending reductions or other swamp-draining reforms – it will be an indication that he has been captured by the denizens of the Washington swamp; insisting that reforms be attached to the legislation, on the other hand, will show his determination to keep his promises to end business as usual in Washington.
Last week, I attended a White House meeting with administration officials tasked with helping determine the president’s position on the upcoming debt ceiling negotiations. They wanted to hear directly from the president’s supporters our ideas on the subject. While the various alternatives discussed each had their individual strengths and weaknesses, virtually all of the dozens in attendance were in agreement on a fundamental point – under no circumstances should the president agree to sign a bill increasing the debt ceiling without extracting swamp-draining concessions as part of the deal.
As with any attempt to drain the swamp, there is opposition – and not just from congressional Democrats. Notably, inside Trump’s own administration, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, formerly a Goldman Sachs banker, told Congress last week he hopes to see a “clean” debt ceiling bill sooner rather than later.
He is opposed inside the administration by, among others, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, who was known in Congress as a man serious about breaking Washington’s addiction to spending.
The House Freedom Caucus, for its part, released a statement last week in opposition to a “clean” debt ceiling increase, demanding that “any increase of the debt ceiling be paired with policy that addresses Washington’s unsustainable spending by cutting where necessary, capping where able, and working to balance in the near future.”
About which, several thoughts:
First, when Congress votes to raise the debt ceiling, it should vote to increase the limit by a certain dollar amount, rather than for a certain length of time (as it did last time it voted to raise the debt ceiling). There are two problems with voting to “suspend” the debt ceiling until a fixed date – it reduces accountability at the ballot box (“Congressman Smith voted to suspend the debt limit for two years!” doesn’t have the same impact as “Congressman Smith voted to raise the debt limit by $2 trillion!”), and, perversely, it creates incentives to borrow more money.
Second, rather than hold one vote on a large increase, Congress should hold several votes over time on smaller increases. The only way we’re ever going to get our debt – and spending – under control is if the voting public pays attention, which will necessitate repeated news coverage. And the only way to get that level of news coverage is for Congress to vote on it regularly. So, no more $2 trillion debt ceiling increases; instead, raise it in $100 billion chunks and force Congress to vote on it every few months, providing a constant reminder to the public that we’re spending borrowed money because Congress cannot control itself.
Third, President Trump should turn this “must pass” legislation into an opportunity to obtain a concession he and the American people strongly support – a constitutional amendment enacting term limits for Members of Congress.
Setting term limits for Congress is the very first item in Trump’s “Contract with the American Voter.” But because constitutional amendments do not require the president’s signature, he has less leverage to force Congress to pass such a constitutional amendment – unless he can find a creative way to convince Congress.
To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, nothing so concentrates the mind of Congress as the prospect of not raising the debt ceiling. President Trump will never have greater leverage to maneuver a term limits constitutional amendment than he will with the debt ceiling bill.
The Trump administration’s war is not one that pits Republicans against Democrats, or even conservatives against liberals. It is the rest of the country, led by President Trump, against the Washington swamp. The Washington swamp is united against term limits, and will never act of its own accord to rein in its own power.
Trump won the presidency because he promised to overthrow the Washington swamp that routinely puts its own interests ahead of the country’s. What better way to make good on that campaign pledge than to compel Congress to enact term limits – in exchange for his signature on legislation raising the debt ceiling? Now, that’s a fight worth fighting.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.