“My sense here is that the GOP was hoisted on its own petard, in that Bush and congressional Republicans constructed the end date of the tax cuts to kick in after the end of the Bush administration, so that Republicans could either continue them or Democrats would be ‘forced’ to raise taxes,” said Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science and congressional expert at the University of Kansas.
“To a large extent the strategy has worked re taxes, but has clearly helped to produce a huge structural deficit,” he said.
Republicans had a bold idea to bring down that deficit. As the debt limit approached its legal ceiling of $14.3 trillion in 2011, party leaders saw the need to raise the limit as a way of forcing massive spending cuts.
“There hadn’t exactly been much restraint in spending, and Bush had a lot to do with that,” said Michael Franc, vice president of government studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former top aide to House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.
By 2011, with the government running trillion-dollar annual deficits, Republicans were emboldened. They won control of the House of Representatives in 2010 with support of the grassroots tea party movement, which pledged tough action to slash spending. The party had modest success in winning cuts early in 2011 and by summer saw a bigger prize: Give us massive cuts, its leaders said, or we’ll resist efforts to increase the debt limit.
“We need to have a showdown at this point that we are not going to increase our debt ceiling anymore. We are going to cut (spending) necessary to stay within the current levels. . . . This needs to be a big showdown,” Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., told Human Events, a conservative magazine, as the 2011 congressional session began.
The conservative stand led to White House-congressional negotiations in the summer of 2011. They eventually agreed to raise the debt ceiling – avoiding default – but only with the promise that a congressional “supercommittee” would seek $1.2 trillion in reductions from projected deficits.
As a hammer to force that committee to produce the promised savings, the deal set automatic spending cuts as the alternative.
The committee failed, and the automatic cuts now are set to start on Jan. 2.