It's been a crazy week in Washington, but it just got substantially crazier. I'm sitting at my desk plugging away at some work when my email starts blowing up with details of a new debt ceiling plan being floated by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Minority Leader. It's a doozy, but the basic breakdown is this: the President would be authorized to request from Congress three separate debt ceiling increases of between $700-$900 billion each. He would be required to submit a plan for an equivalent amount of spending reductions. Congress would then be given a chance to "veto" this package by voting on what's called a "Resolution of Disapproval." If that resolution failed, then the President would have his debt ceiling hike alongside a toothless set of spending reduction ideas. Even if the disapproval passed, he could then veto the resolution meaning that a two-thirds majority of Congress would have to override his veto in order to have the disapproval stand.
So what does that mean in reality? It means the President gets his debt ceiling increase, lock, stock, and barrel, unless a miracle occurs and two-thirds of Congress (AKA every Republican in the House and 50 Democrats along with every Republican in the Senate and 20 Democrats) engage in a sudden burst of bipartisanship and override his veto. True, the plan requires the President to submit a plan to reduce spending by an equivalent amount, but a plan isn't the same as actually cutting spending. Congress would have to actually incorporate those spending reductions into future bills, and the whole reason we have the debt ceiling impasse right now is that they can't agree on what spending reductions to include in future bills.
This is a point that appears to have been missed by some. There are otherwise-solid conservative legislators and activists who have said nice things about the plan because it appears to put the debt ceiling onus directly on the President. But, let me repeat, it does NOT force any cuts in spending. It contains nothing in the way of Congressional fast-track authority, the way several "spending commission" proposals that preceded the President's Fiscal Commission executive order did. Unless I'm missing something (which is always possible), I don't see a single thing that actually requires a spending cut, just a requirement that the President identify a list of spending cuts.
People smarter than I am have also raised real constitutional questions about this plan, as it essentially reverses the legislative process by allowing the President to propose something and Congress to veto that proposal. There is something of a precedent with the Congressional Review Act, which was established to allow Congress to modify or eliminate regulations proposed by executive agencies, but that's a much narrower case where Congress has delegated its legislative authorities relating to regulatory issues. This, on the other hand, strikes right at the heart of Congress' proper authority to determine levels of spending and borrowing as defined in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. It also bears a resemblance to the line-item veto debate of the 1990s, where a proposal was ruled unconstitutional because it allowed for the President to implement a set of policies not with Congress' APPROVAL, but simply by its lack of DISAPPROVAL.
Beyond all of the technical issues (which are substantial and important), it strikes me as a classic case of being worried about politics over policy. The reason this proposal was drafted in this way is because it would lay responsibility for raising the debt ceiling at the feet of the President. Of course, in shifting slightly more of the "blame" on to Obama (by the way, I think it can be argued that he already will bear most of the public responsibility for hiking the debt ceiling), it grants him a huge increase in the debt limit without including any kind of enforceable reforms to spending now or in the future. That might be a cutesy way to damage the President politically, but it's absolutely horrible if your actual goal in this whole debate is to address Washington's overspending problem.
The solution to our debt disaster is not some complicated form of legislative Jiu Jitsu, it's "Cut, Cap, and Balance." Cutting spending in the short-term will address our deficit, establishing a strong statutory spending cap will put us on a glide path to balance in the medium-term, and the passage and submission to the states of a strong Balanced Budget Amendment will provide a real long-term constraint on a Congress that has proven incapable of fiscal discipline.