Heritage President Speaks to Media on Biden-McCarthy Debt Limit Negotiations

Heritage President Speaks to Media on Biden-McCarthy Debt Limit Negotiations

Feb 1, 2023 11 min read

WASHINGTON—Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts spoke to the media Wednesday about President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s meeting at the White House. Heritage and Heritage Action last week outlined three conditions for a debt limit increase: capping spending at fiscal year 2022 levels; offsetting any increase with programmatic cuts, reforms, and pro-growth policies; and ensuring any increase is a transparent dollar amount, not a suspension of the debt ceiling. 

The following is a lightly edited transcript of Roberts’ comments to the media: 

Dr. Kevin Roberts: “We understand there are philosophical and partisan differences between the president and the speaker, but it's good that they're meeting. I think it also reveals that even though the president has been fairly steadfast politically in saying he wouldn't negotiate, that there might be some negotiating going on. 

“In that light, certainly at Heritage and I think across the conservative movement, what we're looking for is an absolute rejection of a real misnomer, which is that there's something called a ‘clean debt limit increase.’ There has to be, first and foremost, a dollar-for-dollar correspondence between whatever dollar amount is added to the debt ceiling with spending cuts. Those spending cuts we understand down the road, outside the confines of a debt limit fight, need to be extensive. They need to be aspirational about how we reduce regulation and return self-governance to the American people. 

“I'll be really specific because my point here today is not to get into conservative platitudes about what needs to happen in an ideal situation, it's to drive home the point that I think Speaker McCarthy early in his tenure is doing an extraordinarily good job at being focused on the right things. … They are right for the American people. I know, looking at polling data that I'm sure that you have seen too, the American people are tired of the status quo in Washington. 

“We are gratified, as I mentioned in another media interview this morning, that Chairman James Comer is driving hard through the Oversight Committee on ending the COVID emergency. That's probably two years too late, in my opinion, but it needs to end immediately. One of the reasons it needs to end is not only to turn off the spigot of emergency funding, which has not only been terribly expansive, including under the previous Republican administration, but it's also been rife with fraud. 

“But there's also something from this lifelong working-class conservative that really concerns me. It is eliminating the work requirements for safety-net programs. I understand as a conservative that we want safety-net programs to exist. We want them to continue. We always want to honor our promise as a civil society, but it is not good for human dignity, and it's certainly not good for the federal budget for those work requirements to have been eliminated. I think that Speaker McCarthy is particularly good at explaining that. 

“The third thing is that in the same way that you and I have to have constraints on our household budgets, we need to make sure that there's a fiscal rule in place on what the plan is for spending by Congress. We estimate that the administration has spent over a trillion dollars, or committed us to spending over a trillion dollars, because of executive actions. We have to end that. Some of the committee chairman in the House are very good about that. 

“There's a really good opportunity for the speaker today to discuss with the president the problems of the Federal Reserve's role in the debt limit. In essence, we need to be able to limit the amount of debt that the Federal Reserve incurs on behalf of the American people so that Congress, and the executive branch fittingly in regular order, can have, dare I say, more mature conversations about the policy moving forward. 

“Last point I'll make is defense. I think some people are surprised that The Heritage Foundation, which of course has been the icon for the proverbial three-legged stool in conservatism, has taken on the excessive, irresponsible spending of the Pentagon. In fact, it's very consistent with our principles. We care so deeply about America's peace through strength that when we look at the fiscal situation in 2023 contrasted to the fiscal situation in 1983, I don't see how those of us who are dyed in the wool Reaganites can have faith in the U.S. Defense Department fighting a one-front war, let alone two-front war, if there continues to be an utter absence of accountability on so much of the spending. 

“It's really easy and fitting for common-sense Americans to take on the diversity, equity, inclusion nonsense that we're spending billions of dollars on. But it's also really important, as I tried to forecast in this article that we published in The American Conservative, that we have to have a hard conversation about which missiles and munitions programs need to be in place for what I hope never happens, but something that seems to be an increasing likelihood with each passing month, and that is some sort of confrontation with China. 

“We're trying to drive that conversation in a way that most of all honors the wonderful heroism of our men and women in uniform, honors the long-held commitment that Heritage and conservatives have toward American peace through strength, but also knowing that it's very different in the 2020s than it was in the 1980s. We're simply not as strong economically, fiscally as we were because of this problem that both parties have created, frankly.” 

Question: Do you have a specific position on defense cuts like a return to a certain baseline funding or is it more general that you think that there needs to be more oversight to tighten the belt?  

Roberts: Question number one on defense, we have a lot of specifics on that. I've laid out a few of those in The American Conservative piece. It isn't sufficient for the United States government to say we're going to nibble around the edges and go find $100 million there, $200 million there in efficiencies. What Heritage is trying to force, not just for the debt ceiling fight, but over the next few years, is a conversation that hasn't happened since the 1970s and 1980s when the Pentagon and Congress worked together to identify missile programs, munition programs that were appropriate for the next war we think we're going to have to fight. That conversation isn't happening in Washington, D.C. 

I want to be clear, the debt ceiling fight's not the time to have that conversation, the full conversation, but it is an opportunity for Heritage to raise the flag and say, "We cannot have any faith and confidence that we're going to win whatever that next war is if we continue to be fiscally irresponsible inside the Pentagon." We're hoping that because that's coming from the political right that perhaps it provides some courage for elected officials to have the conversation. 

Question: Can you circle back to what you said on the Fed and expand a little bit on what you think its role in the debt limit should be or shouldn't be? 

Roberts: It has everything to do with basically the limitless authority the Federal Reserve has to go borrow money and incur that debt for the American people. … The point is that we're trying to impose basically handcuffs on the Federal Reserve with the amount of debt that they incur. We have to have a statutory cap on assets. Congress needs to return to running the show, if you will, when it comes to fiscal responsibility. 

Question: Do you anticipate a potential rift between more conservative House Republicans and then folks in the McCarthy camp when it comes to addressing the debt ceiling and how hard of line to draw? 

Roberts: There is no doubt daylight between a couple of groups within the Republican conference. But I will say, and I wouldn't beat around the bush on this, I do mean it, all of us at Heritage mean it, Speaker McCarthy is representing the entirety of the conference really well. Yet, to the heart of your question, everyone on this call knows that Heritage certainly is more conservative than the Speaker's voting record. Yet I think that what we sense is a little bit of inside baseball here, which is using the debt ceiling fight today, this week, this spring as an opportunity to put a wrench in the president's plan to expand the government. 

Yet, to your point about the more moderate part of the Republican conference, there isn't a significant amount of support in the Republican conference to shut down the government. There is no support, even among the most strident conservatives in the House Republican Conference, to default. Swerving into that political statement, Heritage, of course, ideally would like to wave a magic wand and see the debt ceiling go back to $5 trillion. But as we all understand, McCarthy chief among us, that it's going to take yeoman's work to do that and that if we're rebuilding Rome, we're not going to be able to do that in a single day. 

I'll add just as a postscript that we're deeply disappointed, all of Heritage, our 500,000 supporters are deeply disappointed in the lack of support that Leader McConnell is offering Speaker McCarthy. I can just tell you as someone who spends as much time outside D.C. as I can that conservatives—from the more moderate conservatives to the strident conservatives who are really driving the movement right now—they believe that that is a betrayal. It's interesting just in terms of politics, McCarthy who's never been overwhelmingly popular among conservatives, is doing a really good job at cohering the movement. Heritage is fully in his camp.  

Question: Leader Scalise indicated yesterday that House Republicans are going to put forward a budget of their own in April. When it comes to identifying some of the places to make these cuts or finding savings, I was wondering if there are any existing blueprints out there that Heritage thinks would be a good starting point for Republicans? I know back in June, I believe, some of your colleagues endorsed the Republican Study Committee's budget plan. I'm just wondering what blueprints you guys are looking at as a good start? 

Roberts: Color me biased, but my favorite budget blueprint is the Heritage Budget Blueprint. You will find, to no coincidence, that it is very similar to the budget blueprint authored by the Republican Study Committee. We've worked very closely with them on that. In fact, as much as we love the outgoing chairman, Jim Banks, a close friend of Heritage and a close personal friend, we're just as excited about Chairman Kevin Hern, who is a fiscal hawk. 

From this organization, which you know is a fiscally hawkish organization, but I ought to say that what I'm also excited about, because we're conservatives, not libertarians, is that we understand that America has made a promise. To riff off of MLK's beautiful words, we have a promissory note. Now through these safety-net programs, and it is incumbent upon the House Republicans in particular who've shown a lot more moxie, frankly, when it comes to confronting problems than their Senate colleagues, to talk about not only just cuts that are fiscally necessary, but how ironically if we reform some of these safety-net programs that we actually can deliver better on those promises that we've made to people. 

I think Scalise is really good at this. I think McCarthy is almost uniquely good at it. Heritage is going to be there every step of the way, not just talking about financial cuts, which are necessary, but also that we can improve Americans' lives by updating these, turning them into 21st century programs. 

Question: When would you anticipate this to be resolved? 

Roberts: I think that the political situation for President Biden is that he's at least got to pretend that he's not negotiating for a few more days. But I think what's going to happen is there will be a lot of political pressure, media pressure that McCarthy has gone there in honest to goodness good faith. He's a genuinely nice guy. The president purports to be one. It's just going to be really hard for the president politically to ignore that. 

This is good. I mean, my political differences I have with the president aside, it's good that the president of the United States and the speaker of the House are meeting. The American people are looking for that, in spite of the political differences we all have. Therefore, I think you'll probably start hearing, just knowing Washington some, that there will be a deadline over the next five or six weeks.  

Question: In The American Conservative, you wrote that the friends across the Atlantic will tend to spend less than on NATO goal of 2% of their GDP. I suppose given the idea of moving waste away from the Pentagon spending and trying to get that more in line to a '70s and '80s program, what would say you would expect Congress to push for maybe internationally, if that's something that they would be able to do? 

Roberts: What Heritage would like to see is that any increase in defense spending, and I will be clear, there needs to be some increase in defense spending on particular programs that are the right munitions programs, the right planes, the right tanks, whatever the material may be, that needs to be tied to Congress, not the president of the United States, Congress telling our NATO allies, "It's time to pony up." 

Chief among them, it would not, of course, be your wonderful countrymen, who are as heroic as Americans at this, but our friends in Germany, who not only say one thing and do the other, but then they deign to wag their arrogant finger at the United States when they have sparked two world wars in the last century. I can't tell you how livid American conservatives, starting with me, are about that. Heritage is going to drive really hard until we see the Germans, in particular, forced by our Congress to pull their weight and shut their damn mouths.