Follow the Leader: On Debt Talks, That’s Congress

“The President proposes and Congress disposes.” It’s an old adage and usually an accurate one. It also reflects, in the budget debate, a longstanding tenet of conventional wisdom – that the president must lead or nothing significant will occur.

It’s a belief that crosses party lines.

“I think if you’re the executive, you’ve got to be the guy who’s out there pushing and leading,” New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in late June. “You can’t lay back and wait for somebody else to do it. And I think if the president’s made a mistake here, it’s this laid-back kind of approach where he’s waiting for someone else to solve the problem.”

Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said in reference to President Obama on Fox News around the same time: “He’s the leader. He looks at all 50 states and makes these decisions. He has to bring people together.”

But, events of recent days reinforce a much different reality – that presidents do not necessarily need to lead on this issue. Congress can and often does step up to shape fiscal action on its own, taking the president along for the ride.

When the Senate’s “Gang of Six” released their deficit reduction proposal this week, Obama reacted enthusiastically. That occurred after signs were growing that, on its own, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s fall-back plan for raising the debt limit might not convince enough lawmakers to go along.

This week’s developments follow months of skirmishing over fiscal policy in which congressional Republicans have consistently set the terms of debate.

This spring, Republicans convinced Obama to agree to a domestic discretionary spending level that was well below what he had proposed, and they then prompted him to propose trillions in additional budget savings beyond his official 2012 budget.

Through the year, Republicans coaxed him into moving close (though not all the way) to their position that deficit reduction should come solely from spending cuts, not tax increases. Now, any conceivable plan that’s attached to debt limit legislation will be heavily, if not exclusively, weighted toward spending cuts.

Obama is not the first president to follow, not lead, on deficit reduction.

President Reagan agreed to a congressional request for a huge tax increase in 1982 to recoup much of the federal revenue that his tax cuts of a year earlier had drained. It was but the first of numerous tax increases to which he agreed through his presidency, however much conventional wisdom might suggest otherwise.

President Clinton, who had already pushed a major deficit reduction package through Congress in 1993, nevertheless felt compelled to offer a balanced budget plan two years later after the House Republican majority had proposed its own.

History suggests, then, that we should not agonize over presidential leadership on the fiscal front. Deficit reduction can occur just as easily when Congress, or some element of Congress, steps up to drive the agenda.