The Debt Debacle and The Freshman ClassBy Susan Davis | Tuesday, June 28, 2011 | 9:06 p.m. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Anyone tuned in to the House floor debate last Friday on a pair of Libya resolutions could not be blamed if the incoherence coming from Congress stirred an urge to buy gold.
The Republican majority’s volatility was on full display as Congress voted against authorizing President Obama’s Libya operation and then immediately turned around and rebuked Speaker John Boehner by defeating a measure to restrict funding for the operation they had just voted against authorizing. The mixed messages have no immediate impact on U.S. foreign policy, but the congressional confusion on Libya is a worrisome harbinger of what’s to come in the higher stakes debate over the debt ceiling.
The House Republican leadership seemed clueless, predicting that a vote on a patent-reform bill would fail when it passed by a supermajority, while the Boehner resolution on Libya lost despite the speaker’s urging to vote yes on the measure.
The GOP leadership is finding it harder to get the rank and file to fall in line, in part because of a sizable, ornery freshman class. “This is probably the most whip-proof Congress we’ve seen in our lifetime,” said Mike Franc, a former aide to then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, who is vice president of government studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “They don’t defer to credentials and expertise very easily. You have to earn it big time with them. Whipping almost by its nature requires a certain amount of trust and deference that someone really knows what they’re doing and is part of a team, and in that way you’re dealing with a different kind of Republican Party.”
One side of the GOP argument is that the votes reflect Boehner’s operational style and stated willingness to let the House “work its will.” But for a majority to be effective, it has to exhibit some semblance of teamwork—and the House lacked that last week. During the previous Republican majority, then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay was famed for his vote-counting skills. However, the GOP majority no longer uses DeLay’s most-effective tools—the strong-armed tactics and promises of earmarks in exchange for votes.
More troubling to anyone fearing a U.S. default is the growing chorus of Republican lawmakers and leaders who openly and defiantly question whether the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling needs to be raised at all.
Newly declared GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., echoed a popular view among some Republican lawmakers on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday when she said that the August 2 deadline set by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is a lie.
Geithner holds no sway among House Republicans, whose contempt for the deadline only accelerated once Treasury, in May, moved the target date for default from July to August. That decision prompted a suspicion that the new early-August deadline is fully negotiable.
Under a default scenario, the Treasury Department would have to decide whether to pay interest on outstanding debt, half of which is owned by foreign governments, or keep its fiscal commitment to, for example, seniors on Medicare and Social Security. A default would also roil financial markets.
Some Republicans have argued that this is exactly what Congress should do: Default, and pay the interest on outstanding debts first and use the squeeze to push through spending reforms. But this strategy is loaded with risks. August is a bad month to default, as it is traditionally one of the slower months for incoming revenue.
A GOP lobbyist with close ties to the financial industry said that fears are growing that some kind of drama—a stock-market drop, a downgraded bond rating, a failed vote—may have to happen for the freshmen to understand the stakes: “They may need something terrible to happen to prove a point.”
Philosophically, sentiment is growing among the freshman Republican class, and generally within the House Republican Conference, that the negotiations over the debt limit are what they came to Washington to do—fundamentally change the way Washington spends its money. They are apprehensive about the negotiations being handed off to Boehner, Obama, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the same trifecta that negotiated a deal on spending cuts to head off a government shutdown earlier this year that were later met with disappointment by the GOP freshmen.
This skepticism is working against Boehner’s ability to get the votes he needs to approve a debt-ceiling increase, unless he relies on House Democrats, who face their own divisions over the debt ceiling but without the governing pressure. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said that a debt-ceiling deal should include revenue increases to pay down the deficit, but Democrats are either unwilling or incapable of believing that the votes to increase revenues do not exist. Another alternative: Congress can agree to a short-term extension—a proposal recently offered by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., which was rejected by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
Meanwhile, the rank and file barrels ahead, nonplussed. “You know, in my life in a combat zone, I’ve been in some pretty tough scrapes. I’m not afraid,” freshman Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., a retired Army veteran, told ABC News on Friday when asked if he feared the economic consequences of letting the debt-ceiling deadline pass. But for the Obama administration, Wall Street, the nation’s investor class, and an electorate already suffering from the last financial crisis, the message is: Be afraid. Be very afraid.