“There are many members in the Republican caucus who do not believe in government. And bless their hearts, they act upon their beliefs,” says House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi in an interview with NPR.
“So day to day,” Peolosi added, “we vote here on issues that eliminate government initiatives for clean air, clean water, food safety, public safety, public education, public transportation, public housing, public health, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. They don't believe in a public role. And if you don't believe in a public role, then why do you even have to have taxes to pay for it? ... They're anti-government ideologues, and that's what the speaker has to deal with."
Make no mistake about it: Republican ideology forbids tax hikes and mandates spending cuts. But these are not ends; rather they are means to accomplish a larger goal: Dismantling the welfare state built by both parties over the decades following the New Deal.” Starve the beast” goes GOP thinking, and the result will be a cash-poor, debt-ridden federal government which will have to cut spending, both for discretionary programs and entitlements.
The tea party contingent among House Republicans is so averse to governing that it has rendered the just-reelected House Speaker John Boehner impotent. In every fiscal and debt crises over the last few years Boehner has bargained with President Obama to reach a large deal linking tax hikes with spending cuts. Several times the speaker and the president have come close to an agreementl, only to have it collapse when House Republicans refuse to support their elected leader.
No doubt it was fear of conservative House members that led Boehner to take the disastrous step of pulling a $60 billion relief package for victims of Hurricane Sandy (that and the usual heartland conservative dislike of the East). Boehner, under withering criticism from Chris Christie, Republican governor of New Jersey and Peter King, a GOP House member from New York, among others, relented and agreed to schedule a vote in the new Congress, but not before the speaker’s reputation took another battering.
Sandy’s victims keep piling up.
What can the president and Democrats in Congress do in face of Republican intransigence? Democrats can fight to regain control of the House in 2014 by portraying dysfunctional Republicans as incapable of performing the basic functions of government.
But that’s two years off and probably difficult to accomplish, given gerrymandered districts. In the interim, the country must be governed and important fiscal and debt deadlines met. How?
For starters, the president must stand firm on his promise not to negotiate on raising the debt ceiling. “I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they’ve already racked up through the laws that they passed,” Obama has said.
He’s right, but what leverage does he have if House Republicans refuse to raise the ceiling without spending cuts? The only power Obama has is to invoke the 14th Amendment (“The validity of the public debt of the United States... shall not be question.”) as a constitutional escape hatch. The president has said he does not believe that is “a winning argument,” but it may be time to reconsider.
When the agreed-upon two-month delay on the mandated spending cuts lapses the president would do well to begin bipartisan negotiations in the Senate and then pressure the House Republican leadership to permit a vote that would rely on a coalition of most Democrats and some Republicans. In the past, on the debt ceiling in 2011 and this week with the fiscal cliff, the president negotiated fruitlessly with Speaker Boehner, only in the end to turn to Senate Republicans to secure a deal and then turn to Democrats and a smattering of House Republicans to gain passage of that agreement.
House Republicans don’t believe in government, but the rest of us -- which is most of the nation -- do.
So, if House Republicans don’t want to govern, fine, don’t force them. By negotiating with Senate leaders the president will be granting House Republicans their fondest wishes.