As the 112th Congress begins its work his month, it must take up some unavoidable unfinished business. In their frantic, sloppy struggle to advance big-ticket items on the liberal agenda, Democratic leaders of the 111th Congress failed to address the fact that the federal borrowing necessary to fund their spending binge was quickly nearing the legal debt limit.
That means the new Congress, with a Republican House and a Democratic Senate, must pass an appropriations measure by early March for the rest of the fiscal year, when the temporary continuing resolution now in effect runs out. And it means the new Congress must raise the debt ceiling regardless of what the new Congress does about spending.
If Republicans are not careful, both the budget and debt-limit debates threaten to devolve into games of chicken in which each side tries to blame the other for failing to avert a government shutdown (if not a default on America’s debt). In such a confrontation, President Barack Obama would have the advantage. Concern about absent government services and benefits, undoubtedly magnified by the media, would create pressure that, over time, would divide Republicans and unite Democrats.
None of this is what our ailing economy needs as it struggles to recover, and none of it is what the voting public wants to see.
But rather than revolt against the circumstances they have been handed, Republicans should turn these Democratic loose ends into opportunities to begin changing the spending culture of Washington, D.C., and to strengthen their position in the bigger fights to come this year.
The 2010 election has given Republicans a stronger bargaining position, but it has not made them supreme in Washington. They have the power to stand athwart any further lurches toward European-style social democracy, and they will surely do so. The hyperactive period of the Obama presidency is over. The question for Republicans is whether their situation — controlling the House but not the Senate or the White House — also allows them to advance a positive agenda of their own, while persuading the public to give them the power to do more in 2012.
That means picking fights they can win rather than forcing confrontations they are sure to lose. It means offering serious reforms and spending reductions that the public will deem reasonable and the Democrats will find difficult to reject.
Democrats’ unfinished business offers Republicans the opportunity to do this early, if they act quickly to define the budget and debt-ceiling debates, and if they recognize that the decisive battle of this Congress will be the fight over the 2012 budget.
Soon, the House should pass a single measure that enacts the unavoidable increase in the debt limit and puts in place a continuing resolution for the remainder of the 2011 budget year. That resolution should disburse domestic discretionary spending for the rest of fiscal 2011 at 2008 levels, thereby reducing such spending by more than $50 billion over the rest of this year and paving the way for even more significant reductions in 2012.
Also, the bill should require that all unused stimulus money, unused prior-year earmark money, unobligated balances in agency budgets, and repayments of TARP and bailout funds be directed immediately and exclusively to debt reduction.
Democrats would recoil from such cuts. But legislation like this would be difficult for them to oppose. It would represent a modest spending freeze at levels deemed adequate just three years ago, amid the Great Recession, and it would only be a temporary measure as the 2012 budget debate begins. It would move the debate onto ground that favors Republicans rather than Democrats.
Next, Republicans could introduce a series of rescission measures that make further cuts in 2011 spending. Some will make it through the Senate, others will not. Some will be vetoed, others might be enacted. No matter the outcome, Republicans will be fighting on friendly turf, and be keeping the president and Senate Democrats on the defensive all year.
This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.