Debt Ceiling Debate Reveals GOP-Tea Party Fault Lines

The new Speaker's deficit cutting plan maintains fiscal problems by allowing tax cuts without offset savings.

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The heating up of the debt ceiling debate not only reveals fault lines within the Republican Party, but also suggests why Republican leaders were actually quite eager to get the tax package deal done during the 111th Congress rather than wait until the start of the 112th. Certainly, “no one wanted to see taxes go up on January 1st." However, Mr. Boehner and Mr. McConnell likely also recognized that passing a tax deal that protects tax breaks for the wealthy and adds to the deficit, would be a nonstarter for the incoming Tea Party freshman on whom their majority status (in the House) rests. Starting the 112th Congress on Wednesday with a vote that directly contradicted a group of freshmen Tea Party members who campaigned on the promise to reduce the deficit and reign in spending would have led to a January insurrection. Such an early fight would have emboldened the new, as yet unpredictable freshmen, giving them significant momentum leading up to the fights that will now take place in March when the existing continuing resolution on the budget expires on March 4th, and a decision on whether or not to raise the debt limit comes to a vote.

[Read more about the deficit and national debt.]

As the New York Times reported last week, dissention is already brewing as many freshman members expressed their anger at what they see as Republican leadership’s failure to stop much of the legislation passed in the lame duck, specifically the vote on the tax package. But for now, Congressional Republican leaders seem to have bought themselves some time on that fight. On the Sunday morning talk shows there were hints of the underlying tension as Republicans spoke of both fierce opposition to raising the debt limit, while acknowledging that allowing America to default on its debt was not a viable option. Instead, they mostly stuck to the talking points and the usual false propaganda blaming Democrats for “reckless spending." Never mind that the size of government grew under both Presidents Bush, and decreased under Clinton who also balanced the budget and created a surplus (only to be squandered by one of the same Bush presidents who also increased the size of government). Or that it was a Democratic controlled Congress, led by Nancy Pelosi, that passed the deficit–cutting, "Pay-Go” rules, which will now be replaced by Mr. Boehner’s, “Cut-Go” rules. While Cut-Go sounds good to the GOP/Tea Party base, it’s a shell game that changes the rules from being accountable by requiring any new spending or loss of revenue to be paid for, to a system that says while new spending (the classic GOP boogeyman) must be offset with cuts, a decrease in revenue like decreasing taxes, does not. So the deficit can be increased with tax cuts, not spending.

Recognizing the potential for dissension, Boehner has used the time leading up to the start of the new Congress wisely by handing out a few goodies as only an incoming Speaker can: a full reading of the Constitution on Wednesday and the requirement (per the Tea Party doctrine) that any new legislation introduced must cite the authorizing Constitutional power; along with a couple of seats at the leadership table, though not the posts Tea Party backed candidates were hoping for.

[See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]

So as March approaches, the question is, how long will this somewhat fragile coalition last? The Tea Party backed members start their tenure under increasing pressure to demonstrate early on that they have not “gone Washington”. Given the rancor we’ve heard recently from Michele Bachmann, Rand Paul, Jim DeMint and Darrell Issa, Mr. Boehner and Mr. McConnell, should remember the lesson of Julius Caesar and the ides of March. A seer warned Julius Caesar to “beware the ides of March," and some time later as Caesar was on his way to the senate that last time, he joked with that same seer, "the ides of March have come." To which the seer replied, “they have come but they are not gone.”

Which also presents Democrats with an opportunity to drive a wedge between these factions in the Republican Party, begin to regain control of the message and further dispel the political myth that the GOP is better on fiscal policy (and then take a page from the GOP playbook and get out of the way as they implode). As many conservatives have already pointed out, Republican members of Congress were quick to abandon their campaign rhetoric and dig their heels in to protect the wealth of a handful of individuals at the expense of 98 percent of the rest of the country and add to the debt. Even a broad cross-section of progressive and conservative economists agreed that these tax breaks for the wealthy were the least stimulative options for our economy at this time. [See editorial cartoons about the economy.]

As March approaches, Democrats should “stir the pot” and repeat the message over and over and over--a party that votes for and fights to protect the wealth of a few, over fiscal sanity and job creation, is not serious about deficit reduction. Nor is a party that relies on Mr. Boehner’s fuzzy “Cut-Go”, math which continues the nation’s fiscal problems by allowing tax cuts without offset savings.

  • Check out editorial cartoons on the Tea Party.
  • Follow the money in Congress.
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