Boehner: Real change needed in exchange for debt-limit increase

If the administration wants a hike in the statutory debt ceiling, they will have to produce some agreement on broad budget cuts and structural changes first, John Boehner warns today in an e-mail to bloggers and the media.  Boehner drew the line in the sand while leaving himself some wiggle room on acceptable changes as the debt limit rapidly approaches and Congress runs out of maneuvering room (via Instapundit and Jim Geraghty):

I’ve been notified that the Obama Administration intends to formally request an increase in the debt limit. The American people will not stand for such an increase unless it is accompanied by meaningful action by the President and Congress to cut spending and end the job-killing spending binge in Washington. While America cannot default on its debt, we also cannot continue to borrow recklessly, dig ourselves deeper into this hole, and mortgage the future of our children and grandchildren. Spending cuts – and reforming a broken budget process – are top priorities for the American people and for the new majority in the House this year, and it is essential that the President and Democrats in Congress work with us in that effort.

This may not please those who want no increase in the debt limit at all, but at least it makes clear that the GOP wants a real commitment on budget reductions in exchange for the increase.  That makes sense, as I wrote today in my column at The Week, for a couple of reasons.  First, we can’t realistically cut the budget fast enough to avoid breaching the current limit, not even with the FY2011 budget in Republican hands in the House.  Next, the idea here is to fight for long-term budget reductions and reform, and we need to bargain for those while Democrats control the Senate and White House.

That’s not to say that the debt limit increase is somehow meaningless.  Some argue that the limit only allows Congress a freer hand and that it doesn’t require spending to its maximum, so that this is really a non-issue.  However, most of us realize that Congress has had a longstanding problem with fiscal discipline even with a statutory debt limit in place, and that the only thing we’ve seen is an acceleration in spending rather than any sudden realization of driving off of cliffs.  Raising the limit certainly doesn’t discourage that trend, which means it’s something that should only be done to stave off a crisis, and only with real changes that will eliminate the need to do it again in the future.

Will the Democrats call Boehner’s bluff?  His offer makes it harder for them to do so and argue that a crisis resulting in a shutdown or default would be the responsibility of the GOP.  After all, voters gave Republicans control of the House in large part to get spending under control.  This is a wise political move on Boehner’s part.