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  • Sheri Rivlin Allan Rivlin

5 Reasons Why “Show Me Your Budget” Is the Perfect Response to the House GOP Debt Ceiling Threat

And One Reason Why It’s Not Perfect

By Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin, February 2, 2023

Sometimes it seems like every day is Groundhog Day when it come to the federal budget, but few have missed the tactical similarities to previous budget battles in the current Republican threats to default on the national debt. It is a rerun of the demand that President Obama offer budget cuts in exchange for needed Republican votes to raise the national debt ceiling in 2011 when John Boehner (R-OH) was Speaker of the House and Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was the third ranking Majority Whip. This in turn was a repeat of the period from 1995-1996 when Speaker Newt Gingrich threatened a debt default and caused two government shutdowns.

Despite their failure to achieve the Republicans’ objectives, Gingrich advocated the use of the confrontational tactics again in 2011, and now in 2023. Republicans learned from those standoffs; today’s demands are softer, and the talking points have been refined. For the past week or so there has been less emphasis on the threat, and more on their desire to negotiate and insistence that Biden at least partially meet their expectations.

Biden, who was a Senator in the Gingrich era, and Vice President and lead negotiator for the Obama White House, also has learned from past budget battles, and as he meets McCarthy for the first time this week, he is repeating an effective talking point of his own. Here are five reasons “Show me your budget” proves Grandpa Joe will still beat you at checkers by playing three-dimensional chess.

Reason 1: It wins the news cycle. Last week news broadcasts quoted the administration first stating there would be no negotiations to raise the debt ceiling followed by Republicans’ calls for Biden to negotiate. In the days leading up to the meeting, the president gets the last word, that Republicans want to negotiate but if they have cut proposals they must “show me your budget.”

Reason 2: This was not invented yesterday. Joe Biden has been using the line for decades. Biden, like many older Americans, gets criticized for repeating himself, but one of the old saws he has used throughout his career is, “Don't show me your values; show me your budget, and I'll tell you your values.” In the current circumstances, the phrase is right on time.

Reason 3: It substantively targets the greatest vulnerability in the Republican argument. As we discussed in detail here and here, House Republicans do not want to cut spending, they want to blame Democrats for not cutting spending. Decades of public opinion surveys reveal consistent results; strong majorities of American voters, including overwhelming majorities of Republicans, agree the government spends too much, but there are few proposals for specific budget cuts that get majority support. Starting in the Reagan Administration, continuing through both Presidents Bush and then through Trump, Republicans have not produced specific proposals for meaningful budget cuts even when they controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress.

Reason 4: It highlights the policy divisions between the Republican factions. Recently, debates within the Republican Party have broken into the public on fundamental questions as to whether Social Security and Medicare should be trimmed, and whether we need defense spending cuts or increases. The budget process requires that the House Republicans produce their own budget blueprint by April but reaching agreement on specific funding levels and budget cuts may prove quite difficult for the fractured House GOP.

Reason 5: It sets the stage for productive future budget talks. The White House is correctly adamant that it will not negotiate budget cuts in exchange for a debt limit extension, but it does want to negotiate with Republicans on the budget with the goal of reducing deficits. The normal budget process requires the President to publish his Fiscal Year 2024 Budget plan first, and then both the Senate and House must pass Budget Resolutions in April. So Biden is merely asking for a House GOP budget that is required to be produced by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. The White House position is that we have a process for budget negotiations, and we also have a process for raising the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling is solely the responsibility of the US Congress.

The reason why the “Show me your budget” talking point is not perfect.

It only blunts the Republican strategy of blaming Democrats for not cutting the budget, and for any unpopular cuts the Democrats would propose, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition for getting what America truly needs, a substantive bipartisan agreement to restrain future spending increases and raise additional revenue to reduce unsustainable long-term budget deficits. America needs leaders that are willing to put aside the politics and blame shifting and get to the hard work and unpopular choices needed to put our fiscal policy on a sustainable path. The “Show me your budget” talking point is a first step toward ending the irresponsible House GOP strategy of threatening a global economic catastrophe in a false effort to score political points, but it will take much more than that to actually solve the nation’s long-term problem of an unsustainable national debt.

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