The importance of an ‘enforcement mechanism’

There’s a reason congressional Republicans are pushing for a two-step process on raising the debt ceiling, and it’s not just about objecting to the one thing President Obama has requested. It’s also about leverage.

Both the Boehner and Reid plans would include a massive spending cut, totaling about $1 trillion. Both plans would also then begin a process tackling tax and entitlement “reform,” but with different strings attached. Under Boehner’s approach, success on this second would be a prerequisite for the next debt-ceiling increase. Under Reid’s approach, the debt ceiling would already be raised through 2012.

And that’s what worries Republicans. Under the Reid plan, if the tax and entitlement “reform” process fails to reach a solution, nothing horrible happens. Failure, the GOP argues, has to come with some kind of dramatic consequence, or policymakers won’t have an incentive to succeed.

As Jonathan Cohn explained, that’s where “triggers” enter the picture.

Specifically, [Republicans] want a guarantee that the cuts will actually take place. Boehner’s bill would accomplish this by increasing the debt ceiling in stages — first by enough to carry the government through 2011, and then by enough to carry it through 2012. The second increase would be conditional upon approval of the commission’s savings recommendations. And, with Boehner promising his colleagues that no Republican member would recommend new revenue, the savings would have to come entirely from cuts, the bulk of them from some combination of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. […]

Democrats obviously won’t go along with that.

President Obama didn’t make a lot of news in his remarks this morning, but there was one line that stood out for those keeping an eye on this part of the process:

“We agree on a process where the next step is a debate in the coming months on tax reform and entitlement reform — and I’m ready and willing to have that debate. And if we need to put in place some kind of enforcement mechanism to hold us all accountable for making these reforms, I’ll support that too if it’s done in a smart and balanced way.”

“Balanced” is the key word there. It’s pretty easy to set this “enforcement mechanism” up in a way that would require sacrifice from both sides. Indeed, it’s obvious — craft the policy so that if the next round of talks doesn’t produce an effective solution, deficit-cutting measures would kick in automatically in the form of spending cuts and tax hikes. If this is about creating an incentive for both sides, it would do the trick nicely: Dems wouldn’t want the cuts, and Republicans wouldn’t want the taxes.

But Republicans, so far, have refused to consider this approach, because it creates the possibility that someone’s taxes might go up. They’re open to triggers as an idea, but GOP leaders have said they only want automatic deficit-reduction measures that include cuts without revenue. They’re comfortable with creating an incentive for success, so long as it doesn’t affect their priorities if the talks fail.

In other words, GOP leaders are not only reluctant to compromise, they’re also against a smaller compromise that could help lead to a larger compromise.

I’m starting to think tax cuts are the priority Republicans take seriously.