The GOP’s Reckless Bet

House Republicans playing games with the debt limit risk doing serious damage to their party — and the country.

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, and the House GOP leadership respond to President Barack Obama's remarks to the nation's governors earlier today about how to fend off the impending automatic budget cuts, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Feb. 25, 2013. From left are Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., partially blocked is Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-NC, and Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla. 
AP Photos2013
Charlie Cook
Sept. 19, 2013, 4:05 p.m.

Listen­ing to Treas­ury Sec­ret­ary Jac­ob Lew speak to the Eco­nom­ic Club of Wash­ing­ton on Sept. 17 brought to mind how little many of the more con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans in the House really know about Pres­id­ent Re­agan’s eight years in of­fice, how he op­er­ated, and, for that mat­ter, why and how he suc­ceeded. In oth­er words, few of them get how the town worked dur­ing Re­agan’s ten­ure, as op­posed to today, when it only barely does.

In his speech and sub­sequent dis­cus­sion with Dav­id Ruben­stein — the pres­id­ent of the Eco­nom­ic Club and the cofounder and cochief ex­ec­ut­ive of­ficer of the Carlyle Group, a glob­al private-equity firm — Lew poin­ted out that if the “Hastert Rule” had been ob­served when Demo­crats con­trolled the House dur­ing the Re­agan ad­min­is­tra­tion, much of the le­gis­la­tion that Re­agan is re­membered for would not have passed. (Un­der the Hastert Rule, named for former House Speak­er Den­nis Hastert, a Re­pub­lic­an, the ma­jor­ity party in the House does not act on bills un­less the meas­ures have the sup­port of a ma­jor­ity of the ma­jor­ity party’s mem­bers.)

There were plenty of Re­agan-backed meas­ures that Speak­ers Tip O’Neill and Jim Wright op­posed, but these House lead­ers did not stand in the way of their be­ing taken up for con­sid­er­a­tion. Take, for ex­ample, the Bal­anced Budget and Emer­gency De­fi­cit Con­trol Act of 1985, bet­ter known as the Gramm-Rud­man-Hollings law, and the Om­ni­bus Re­con­cili­ation Act of 1981, also known as the Gramm-Latta Act, which in­cluded the Kemp-Roth tax cuts. Both of these meas­ures reached the floor and passed the House without a ma­jor­ity of the cham­ber’s ma­jor­ity, the Demo­crats. Is a rule that would have ef­fect­ively pre­cluded the pas­sage of le­gis­la­tion that con­ser­vat­ives cite as pil­lars of Re­agan’s do­mest­ic agenda really something they want to sup­port?

The fact is, only 33 mem­bers of the 433 cur­rent mem­bers of the House (two seats are va­cant) served for as much as a day while Re­agan was pres­id­ent between 1981 and 1989. Of these mem­bers, only 14 are Re­pub­lic­ans. And only 25 mem­bers, in­clud­ing 12 Re­pub­lic­ans, served a full ses­sion of Con­gress while Re­agan was in of­fice. To put it dif­fer­ently, any mem­ber who came to the House after Reps. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Fred Up­ton, R-Mich., did not serve a full Con­gress with Re­agan.

Those who pay lip ser­vice to Re­agan without really un­der­stand­ing what happened dur­ing those years should read Chris Mat­thews’s book, Tip and the Gip­per: When Polit­ics Worked, com­ing out Oct. 1. While most con­ser­vat­ives prob­ably find the lib­er­al Mat­thews a bit dif­fi­cult to take on his Hard­ball show on MS­N­BC, when he is writ­ing his­tory, he does so very ob­ject­ively. (His 1996 book, Kennedy and Nix­on: The Rivalry That Shaped Post­war Amer­ica, was fas­cin­at­ing and could not have been fairer to both men.)

It’s clear that per­haps 50 to 100 House Re­pub­lic­ans see Pres­id­ent Obama and Demo­crats as in­her­ently wrong, al­most evil; and thus they view com­prom­ising as es­sen­tially be­com­ing cocon­spir­at­ors with evil. Giv­ing in, even just a little bit, is plain wrong, this think­ing goes. While this point of view is fine for the cof­fee shop or Rotary Club back home, it is ana­thema to the le­gis­lat­ive pro­cess, where com­prom­ise is es­sen­tial to mak­ing gov­ern­ment work. Com­prom­ise is part of demo­cracy.

On some is­sues, dig­ging in your heels doesn’t cause a lot of harm, but on oth­ers, it is down­right dan­ger­ous. Lew cited former Re­agan Treas­ury Sec­ret­ary James Baker III as say­ing, “A fail­ure to pay what is already due will cause cer­tain and ser­i­ous harm to our cred­it, fin­an­cial mar­kets, and our cit­izens,” not­ing that Re­agan raised the debt lim­it 17 times dur­ing his eight years in of­fice. No one would ques­tion Re­agan’s con­ser­vat­ive cre­den­tials, but he knew the dif­fer­ence between rhet­or­ic and real­ity, between what you would like to see and what can hap­pen in a demo­cracy, where com­prom­ise is an es­sen­tial in­gredi­ent.

So that leads us to the situ­ation we are in today, with House Re­pub­lic­ans threat­en­ing to shut down the gov­ern­ment on Oct. 1 and re­fus­ing to raise the debt lim­it later in the fall if Obama and the Demo­crats don’t agree to scale back the 2010 health care re­form law — a meas­ure that has sur­vived a Su­preme Court chal­lenge and mul­tiple at­tempts by con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans to re­peal it. Mind­ful of the dam­age that past budget con­front­a­tions have done to the Re­pub­lic­an Party, House GOP lead­ers would like to avoid a gov­ern­ment shut­down or a de­fault, but the zeal­ous mem­bers of their caucus are push­ing them in­to a more con­front­a­tion­al pos­ture.

Re­pub­lic­ans eager for a fight need to real­ize that some things are not to be trifled with. A na­tion that does not pay its bills and fails to meet its ob­lig­a­tions for spend­ing is hardly fol­low­ing a con­ser­vat­ive ap­proach to fisc­al policy.

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