How to Enforce a Debt Deal: Through ‘Meat-Ax’ Cuts Nobody Wants

The bipartisan legislation the House passed on Wednesday to suspend the debt ceiling and impose spending caps contains an arcane but important provision aimed at forcing both sides to follow through on the deal struck by President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

The 99-page measure would suspend the $31.4 trillion borrowing limit until January 2025. It would cut federal spending by $1.5 trillion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office, by effectively freezing some funding that had been projected to increase next year and then limiting spending to 1 percent growth in 2025.

But it also contained a number of side deals that never appear in its text but that were crucial to forging the bipartisan compromise, and that allowed both sides to claim they had gotten what they wanted out of it. To try to ensure that Congress abides by the agreement, negotiators used a time-tested technique that lawmakers have turned to for decades to enforce efforts to reduce the deficit: the threat of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts if they do not finish their work.

Here’s how it works.

A 1 percent cut unless spending bills are passed.

Congress is supposed to pass 12 individual spending bills each year to keep the government funded. But for decades, lawmakers, unable to agree on those measures, have lumped them together into one enormous piece of legislation referred to as an “omnibus” spending bill and pushed them through against the threat of a shutdown.

The debt-limit agreement would impose an automatic 1 percent cut on all spending — including on military and veterans programs, which were exempted from the caps in the compromise bill — unless all dozen bills are passed and signed into law by the end of the calendar year. Mandatory spending on programs such as Medicare and Social Security would be exempt.

A wrinkle is that, because the fiscal year that drives Congress’s spending cycle ends before the calendar year does — on Sept. 30 — Congress would still need to pass a short-term bill to fund the government from October through December to avoid a shutdown.

Republicans and Democrats both dread the cuts.

The measure is a version of a plan offered by Representative Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky, a key vote to advancing the bill through the Rules Committee, who said he believed it would help avoid the Democratic-controlled Senate using the specter of a shutdown to force the House to swallow a bloated spending bill at the end of the year.

“You get threatened and ransomed with a shutdown,” Mr. Massie said in an interview in late April describing the plan. “They’ll tell you, ‘If you don’t pass the Senate bill, there’s going to be a shutdown.’ I think we need to take that leverage away from anybody who would risk a shutdown to get more spending. Just take that off the table.”

Some Republicans, including defense hawks, are livid about the measure, arguing that it would subject the Pentagon to irresponsible cuts. Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee and its defense subcommittee, called it a “harmful” provision that would leave a “threat hanging over the Department” of Defense.

“It would trigger an automatic, meat-ax, indiscriminate, across-the-board cut in our already inadequate defense budget and in the domestic, discretionary nondefense funding,” Ms. Collins said.

Democrats, too, have a major incentive to avoid the cuts, since they have resisted reducing funding for federal programs all along.

Without spending bills, major parts of the debt deal will die.

Both parties stand to lose victories gained through handshake agreements during negotiations if Congress can’t pass its appropriations bills. Neither the White House nor House Republicans have published a full accounting of the agreements that do not appear in legislative text, but some have become clear.

The deals would allow Republicans to claim they are making deep cuts to certain spending categories while letting Democrats mitigate the pain of those cuts in the funding bills.

One unwritten but agreed-upon compromise would allow appropriators to repurpose $10 billion a year in 2024 and 2025 from the I.R.S. — a key priority of Republicans, who had opposed the additional enforcement funding championed by Mr. Biden and Democrats.

Another side agreement, sought by Democrats, that would evaporate if the spending bills were not written designated $23 billion a year in domestic spending outside of military funding as “emergency” spending, basically exempting that money from the caps in the deal.

Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.

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