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The GOP's new debt-ceiling condition

Official White House photo

In 2011, House Speaker John Boehner came up with an arbitrary rule, not for any policy reason, but because he thought it sounded nice: for every dollar in a debt-ceiling increase, President Obama would have to accept an equal amount of spending cuts. So, for example, raising the debt limit by $1.4 trillion necessarily meant Obama had to agree to $1.4 trillion in cuts.

This year, Boehner said the rule he'd come up with for himself still applied -- either Obama swallows $1.5 trillion in cuts or Republicans would crash the economy. As far as the GOP was concerned, the president doesn't have "any choice."

That was two weeks ago. According to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) new plan, Boehner's "rule" is finished -- now, instead of massive cuts, Republicans want the Senate Democrats to pass a budget for the first time "in almost four years," and will only approve a three-month debt-ceiling extension to give the upper chamber time to do that.

Or what? That's unclear, but since GOP leaders are already taking default off the table, there's no real threat left. Whether Republicans like it or not, once they approve a debt-ceiling increase next week, they already know they're going to have to do it again in April, if not sooner.

This is what make the surrender so obvious -- not only has Boehner's ridiculous threshold been abandoned, but the new demand is toothless and halfhearted.

But before we move on, is there anything to Cantor's accusation that Senate Democrats have been delinquent in their budget duties for "almost four years"? No, not really.

The federal budget complex is painfully complicated, but as Jonathan Bernstein explained last year, Republican rhetoric on Senate inaction, often repeated in the media, is wrong.

The U.S. government, of course, is absolutely operating under a budget. The law that provided that budget even conveniently had the word "budget" in its title: it's the Budget Control Act, passed by Congress and signed by the president to end the debt limit confrontation last summer. [...]

[T]hrough a historical fluke, there's an intermediate stage in budgeting that has the name "budget." That's the thing that Congress hasn't done for the last couple of years. Is there a reasonable criticism of the Democratic Senate for not voting on a budget resolution last year? I suppose. Is there a reasonable criticism of the Democratic Congress for not producing a budget resolution in 2010? Again, maybe. But it's all about process, and has nothing at all to do with whether the United States government is operating under a budget. Of course it is.

Long story short, a "budget" and a "budget resolution" are not exactly the same thing. Senate Dems have avoided the latter, basically to avoid the kind of political headaches Paul Ryan invited on House Republicans last year.

The implication, though, is that the government hasn't operated with a budget in nearly four years, and that's wildly misleading.

As House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) explained a while back, "I have a bias. I served for 23 years on the Appropriations Committee. What does the budget do? The budget does one thing and really only one thing. It sets the parameters of spending and discretionary caps. Other than that, the Appropriations Committee is not bound by the Budget Committee's priorities…. The fact is that you don't need a budget. We can adopt appropriation bills and we can adopt authorization policies without a budget."

And yet, there was Speaker Boehner today, telling his members, "The Democratic-controlled Senate has failed to pass a budget for four years. That is a shameful run that needs to end, this year."

Why would he and Cantor care? Because they're eager to force Senate Democrats to approve a budget resolution that would invariably include politically damaging provisions that Republicans want to use in campaign ads.