There was one distinct faction missing from the bipartisan group of legislators that passed the “fiscal cliff” deal on New Year's Day: Tea Party Republicans. Indeed, the compromise bill won only because Speaker John Boehner bypassed the Tea Party members of his caucus and allowed Democrats in the House to join with more mainstream Republicans voting in favor. This is now the second time in as many years that the Tea Party minority has almost caused our country to suffer a needless fiscal calamity. This year’s “fiscal cliff” deadlock, which is really just a continuation of last year’s debt ceiling showdown, shows that the Tea Party is utterly incapable of engaging in the art of politics necessary to govern.
Heading into CNN’s eleven o’clock hour of New Year’s Eve coverage, Anderson Cooper had to inform viewers that the festivities might be interrupted –not by Ryan Seacrest, but by Joe Biden. The vice president had just struck a deal with Senate Republicans to avert the midnight deadline for going over the “fiscal cliff.” Co-host Kathy Griffin, as usual, had a quick comeback. She was not happy about the possible interruption and blamed the Tea Party, singling out Rand Paul for special criticism. Anderson pretended to maintain his evenhanded treatment of the political parties, but Kathy was right. Although Biden didn’t make a public statement, the reason many of us were flipping stations last night was to see if the last minute brinkmanship would result in a deal. Biden and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of all people, struck a bargain just before midnight, which passed the Senate in the early morning hours by a huge 89-8 majority, including 40 of 45 Senate Republicans. Notable nays included the aforementioned Senator Paul, along with the other Tea Party darling, Marco Rubio.
Boehner then spent almost all of New Year’s Day trying to keep his House Republicans from amending the Senate compromise and scuttling the deal. In order to pass the Senate bill, the speaker had to abrogate the so-called "Hastert Rule." Named for the last Republican speaker, the Rule only allowed Republicans to bring a piece of legislation to the floor if it would garner a majority of the Republican vote. In other words, even if a bill could pass the House by a majority vote derived from both parties, the Hastert Rule meant that the speaker would exercise his parliamentary prerogative to block an up or down vote on any legislation not supported by a majority of his caucus. And there is no way to reach this majority of a majority threshold without the Tea Partiers – thus, granting this reactionary minority veto power.
Well, no more. At least for today. The “fiscal cliff” compromise passed by a vote of 257 in favor to 167 against. Democrats voted 172-16 in favor while Republicans votes 151-85 against.
Incredibly, the speaker, who generally doesn’t need to vote, went on record as in favor, while his supposed deputy, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, went the other way. Was Cantor looking ahead to Thursday’s vote for the House speakership?
All of the high profile House Tea Partiers – from Michele Bachmann to the now-defeated Allen West and Joe Walsh – joined Cantor. Paul Ryan, demonstrating either leadership or his inner-Romney, came out in favor. But the up-and-coming crop of Republicans, including Jeff Flake, Tim Scott, Mike Pence and Shelley Moore Capito, all voted nay.
In the Federalist Papers, James Madison expressed his most profound worry over the Tyranny of the Majority – the fear that a majority faction would come to deprive powerless minorities of their rights. One suspects that Madison did not foresee the modern day Tea Party, a minority of zealots seeking to deprive the majority of sensible governance by refusing to govern. For about a minute, it looked like President Obama’s reelection in November had vindicated Madison’s constitutional design, with it anti-majoritarian checks and balances. Now it appears that we may face at least three more mini-fiscal cliffs upcoming in the just the first quarter of the New Year: the debt ceiling, sequestration and the continuing budget resolution.
Today’s “fiscal cliff” compromise does show a way forward, but it requires a bipartisan majority to have their voices heard and not vetoed by parliamentary maneuvers of the Tea Party minority intent on making government unworkable.