The GOP’s capitulation on the debt ceiling bill this week calls to mind the famous line from Macbeth about misdeeds: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well/It were done quickly.”
Well, the House completed its dirty deed quickly – but that’s about all that was good about it. After the vote on Tuesday, a relieved Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) declared to his Republican colleagues that the “monkey is off our backs.” Really? Don’t be so sure about that, Mr. Speaker. Almost no one believes the Republicans “won” this fiscal fight – and Politico wasn’t too far off in its headline “The GOP’s Debt Ceiling Surrender.”
The problem conservatives have with this clean debt ceiling outcome isn’t so much that the GOP lost, but that the GOP seems to have lost something more vital: its nerve. There was virtually no debate in the House and Senate to protest another credit card extension on top of $17 trillion of debt already outstanding. There should have been throngs of Republicans storming to the House floor microphones denouncing Washington’s debt addiction, its inability to cut even the most absurd subsidies for windmills to catfish producers, and its willingness to live with deficits headed back to one trillion dollars a year from now until kingdom come. But the debt ceiling debate this week had all the political drama of a bill naming a post office after a dead senator.
Even worse, the debt ceiling wasn’t actually raised, but simply suspended for one year through March 2015. Technically, this allows Congress to spend however much it wants over the next thirteen months with no recourse against an election-year spending spree. So it’s Johnny bar the door on new spending in Washington. This is like suspending all the speed limits on the highways.
The House never even advanced out of that chamber a first-round a debt extension bill with spending reductions or budget reforms that would make it harder to spend in the future. Given the intransigence at the White House and among Senate Democrats for a “clean” debt ceiling the GOP probably wouldn’t have prevailed in any case. But to show some fight and showcase to the voters what the GOP’s fiscal priorities are (and what the Democrats’ priorities aren’t) would have at least been educational.
It’s true that Republicans did at least force Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to own this debt ceiling suspension. The House bill passed with near unanimous Democratic support and only 28 House Republican votes. Democrats seemed to believe that voting for a clean debt ceiling extension with no reforms attached is a badge of honor, and we will see in November if voters agree. This vote breaks a longstanding and nonsensical convention that the majority party supply most of the votes for clearing a debt extension bill. Obama ran up the debt by $6 trillion in five years, his party bears the responsibility for raising the debt ceiling. So that is a positive development.
The worry is that Republicans now appear to be in a cowering position since they lost the fight on the government shutdown last fall. They have now passed a massive $1 trillion spending bill, an ugly farm/food stamps bill and now a debt ceiling extension with no protest and almost no resistance. This is starting to look like not just a trend, but a new governing strategy. The lesson Republicans seem to have learned from the government shutdown battle with Democrats is to not engage in any principled battles over the next year – or two or three.
Ask Newt Gingrich – then-speaker of the House – how that strategy worked out in the 1998 elections. Republicans surrendered seats when they were supposed to pick up bundles of them. Conservatives decided in the election there wasn’t much reason to vote for either party and they didn’t show up. Warning: that could happen again in November unless Republicans start to show some gumption and some spine.