The New Congress: Deficit Reduction at All Costs
Business + Economy

The New Congress: Deficit Reduction at All Costs

Iva Hruzikova/The Fiscal Times

Okay, here’s the Republican drill for 2011: Cut at least one government program a week, dismantle chunks of the Democratic health care reform law, regularly summon Obama administration officials to justify their policies, turn back the clock on spending levels to 2008 and blunt the impact of tough new regulations on banks and credit card companies.

And that’s just for starters. With the arrival of an army of hard-charging conservative freshmen House and Senate members – many who rode to victory under the Tea Party banner of deficit reduction and tax cuts – GOP leaders are being prodded to challenge the status quo by shredding the president’s budget and  downsizing government.
“The president’s agenda may be the agenda of Washington, but beginning this Wednesday, January 5th, the agenda of this House will be the agenda of the American people,” declared John Boehner of Ohio, the speaker of the new Republican-controlled House. Boehner treats compromise like it’s a dirty word, while over in the Senate – where Democrats barely maintain control after the disastrous midterm election –  Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky doesn’t mince words in saying his major goal is to oust President Obama in 2012.

To be sure, there were signs of old fashioned bipartisanship in the post-election lame duck session of the 111th Congress last month, when Obama and Republican leaders rammed a massive $858 billion tax cut and stimulus package through the Senate and House. And Obama prevailed in enacting legislation to repeal the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy that prevented gays to serve openly in the military, and in winning Senate confirmation of the new START nuclear weapons treaty with the Russians.

There may be other opportunities for compromise between the White House and the GOP in certain discrete areas such as a free-trade agreement with South Korea, educational reforms, highway and infrastructure spending and even movement toward a deal on tax reform, along the lines recommended by the president’s fiscal commission.

But a number of congressional experts and many lawmakers doubt there will be many Rose Garden signing ceremonies in the coming year or two. They note that Republicans are determined to deprive Obama of victory laps heading into the 2012 presidential campaign. Instead, they say, expect standoffs and showdowns punctuated by a few agreements that GOP leaders sign off on to prove they are not the party of “No.”

“There is going to be a lot of gridlock,” said David Rohde, a political science professor at Duke University. “The polarization that has characterized Congress more and more over the last couple of decades was intensified and institutionalized by the results of the election.”
Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed, adding that “What [Obama] is basically going to end up doing is turning most of his focus to preserving what he has already done.”

Last November, the Republicans parlayed widespread voter dissatisfaction with the economy, unemployment and a soaring national debt into their biggest victory since 1948 – with a net pick up of 63 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate. The GOP now holds a solid 242 to 193 majority in the House. That means that Boehner, a chain-smoking veteran lawmaker who spent years in the political backwaters, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., a fast-rising conservative star, will set the table for much of the political debate in the coming year.

Cantor has already laid out the House calendar for the entire year, which began with votes at noon on Jan. 5 – the day the new 112th Congress was sworn in. Boehner has promised to schedule a vote every week on a proposal for cutting a government program – with perennial targets like the departments of Education and Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency likely to feel the heat.

And the new Republican chairmen of at least five key House committees – Budget, Energy and Commerce, Ways and Means, Financial Services and Oversight and Government Reform – the panel that wields subpoena power – will serve as the field generals in pressing for new policies.

Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the new Budget Committee chief, will press for major spending cuts and entitlement reforms along the lines of his controversial “Road Map” strategy; Fred Upton of Michigan, a moderate- turned- conservative  who heads the Energy and Commerce Committee, already is talking about turning Medicaid over to the states; and Spencer Bauchus of Alabama, the new chairman of the Financial Services Committee, is preparing for hearings on the new Dodd-Frank financial reform law, determined to find ways to relieve banks of government oversight and regulations.

The wild card in both the House and the Senate will be the impact of the freshmen – especially the heroes of the Tea Party who will be pressuring more veteran members and the leadership to stick to their guns in opposing or reversing Obama and Democratic policies – especially the new health care reforms. Tea Party-backed Tim Scott of South Carolina, the first Republican African American elected to Congress from the Deep South since Reconstruction, told The Fiscal Times: “I will not compromise my conservative principles and will vote my conscience.” His top three goals reflect Tea Party principles: “cutting spending, reducing taxes for all Americans and fighting against nationalized health care.”

A large chunk of the incoming House Republican freshmen are allied with the Tea Party, while several Tea Party-backed senators in the upper chamber are certain to shake things up.  Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., whose outspoken conservative views have endeared her to anti-Washington activists, has formed the “Constitutional Conservatives Caucus,” one of the largest GOP factions with roughly 60 members.

Although Bachmann failed in a bid to win a House GOP leadership post last month, she will unquestionably be a player in the House as the head of a roughly 60 member caucus – one of the largest in the body. In describing the freshman class of House Republican members, Bachmann told The Fiscal Times: “They came in on a message of fiscal austerity and getting our house in order.”

Still, Boehner, first elected in 1990, recognizes that fealty to conservative principles does not always provide a blueprint for the challenges of governing. And the newly-empowered GOP lawmakers must show they can govern. The public has hardly given Republicans a firm endorsement. On the contrary, a recent Washington Post poll showed many still skeptical of GOP leadership, as it found some 43 percent trust Obama to deal with the country’s most pressing problems while only 38 percent trust Republicans.

Raising the debt ceiling will be an early challenge for Boehner, and already many of the conservative newcomers have vowed to oppose that action. The Treasury is expected to run out of borrowing authority by early spring, and without action by Congress to raise the $14.3 trillion debt limit, the government will not be able to meet its obligations and the financial markets will be thrown into turmoil. No Congress has ever failed to raise the ceiling. Boehner acknowledged in an interview with The New Yorker that dealing with the debt ceiling “is going to be probably the first really big adult moment” for the new Congress.

The Senate will also surely get a jolt from the influx of several Tea Party-backed members. Newly-elected Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, could have an outsized impact given Senate rules that empower each lawmaker with procedural rights to throw roadblocks in legislative deliberations.

In fact, they could gum up the works not just for Democrats but also for McConnell’s plans. Paul, an ophthalmologist who had never before run for political office, overcame long odds to prevail in a GOP primary despite the fact that McConnell backed his opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson. McConnell then supported the independent-minded Paul who has been outspoken in backing term limits, a balanced budget amendment, and big cuts in federal spending. Like his father, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., Rand Paul opposes the Federal Reserve's control of the money supply and interest rates. 

Meanwhile, Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles, became a conservative rock star by running an anti-establishment campaign and coming from behind to knock off outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist. A long-time state legislator in Florida who rose to become speaker of the State House, Rubio already has been mentioned as a possible future presidential contender. Lee is a political novice, having spent his career as a lawyer whose conservative credentials include a clerkship for then-federal appellate judge Antonin Scalia, who is now a Supreme Court justice.

A fiscal conservative, Lee reportedly opposes the 17th Amendment to the Constitution which provides for direct election of senators – a view not widely shared. At 39, Lee is the youngest senator. Finally, Toomey is a former House member who served for three terms and then lost a Senate primary race to Sen. Arlen Specter. He went on to head the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group, and has consistently been given high marks by activist conservative groups for his staunch fiscal conservatism. He narrowly defeated Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., in a hard-fought race to succeed Specter.  

A veteran of the war in the 1990s between a newly-ascendant GOP Congress and a Democratic president, Pat Griffin, who was President Clinton’s top lobbyist, said: “It [the presence of the newcomers] doesn’t give McConnell much flexibility to make a deal if the majority of the Republicans think there is a deal when you still have got a significant, determined minority within the minority that wants to [kill it]. The rules really work to their advantage.”

But McConnell signaled he is quite comfortable with the presence of resolute conservatives and will adopt a take-no-prisoners style. In an interview with Politico the Kentucky lawmaker said of Democrats: “There’s much for them to be angst-ridden about. If they think it’s bad now, wait till next year.”

Michelle Hirsch of The Fiscal Times contributed to this report