Republican votes for the 'clean' debt ceiling increase

The “clean” debt ceiling capitulation announced by House Republican leadership yesterday did indeed pass, on a 221-201 vote, driven swiftly through the House because there was icy weather coming, and also this is the kind of sandwich one must eat quickly, with nose held and eyes closed.

The restoration of military pensions cut in the Ryan-Murray budget deal, originally meant to be the final price of the debt ceiling increase, was broken off into a separate bill, which passed 326-90.  Paul Ryan is one of the Republicans who voted “no” on that, cleaving to the deal he worked out with Senate Democrats.  While there is considerable support among Republican voters for undoing the military pension cuts, it was a bit difficult to sell a measure that would, after all, increase spending as a concession for granting more debt to our insolvent government.  It seems better to have it as a separate bill.

Only 28 House Republicans voted for the clean debt increase.  The list, courtesy of Fox News, includes mostly leadership figures, blue-state Republicans, and those who were not planning to run for re-election:

John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy,R-Calif.
Chief Deputy Whip Pete Roskam, R-Ill.
Ken Calvert, R-Calif.
Dave Camp, R-Mich.
Michael Grimm, R-N.Y.
Richard Hanna, R-N.Y.
Doc Hastings, R-Wash.
Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
Devin Nunes, R-Calif.
Hal Rogers, R-Ky.
Dave Reichert, R-Wash.
Chris Collins, R-N.Y.
Howard Coble, R-N.C.
Charlie Dent, R-Pa.
Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.
Pete King, R-N.Y.
Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J.
Buck McKeon, R-Calif.
Patrick Meehan, R-Pa.
Gary Miller, R-Calif.
Ed Royce, R-Calif.
John Runyan, R-N.J.
John Shimkus, R-Ill.
Chris Smith, R-N.J.
David Valadao, R-Calif.
Frank Wolf, R-Va.

As Fox News observes, this paltry handful of Republican votes was part of Boehner’s strategy, which has been widely interpreted as a concession that there will be no more efforts to win fiscal-discipline concessions when the debt ceiling comes up, due to Shutdown Phobia.  The debt ceiling will become a quiet formality in which the minimum number of Republicans necessary, mostly those hailing from states that lean Democrat, will be asked to stand at attention and salute as the Leviathan State goes another $2 trillion into debt.  The less public attention paid to these little funereal ceremonies for liberty, the better:

Boehner’s decision to move ahead on the debt-ceiling legislation without any concessions signals a potentially new approach on these so-called must-pass bills. His party was bruised last year after Republicans tried to extract changes to ObamaCare as part of a budget bill, resulting in a partial government shutdown that lasted until Boehner finally called a relatively clean budget bill to the floor — which passed on mostly Democratic votes.

The vote Tuesday followed the same pattern. Boehner relied on mostly Democrats to bring the bill over the finish line 193 Democrats voted for the bill, while just 28 Republicans did the same. Boehner and other GOP leaders were among those who voted yes.

Boehner announced before the vote that that was the strategy. “We’ll let the Democrats put the votes up. We’ll put a minimum number of (GOP) votes up to get it passed,” Boehner said. “We’ll let his party give him the debt ceiling increase that he wants.”

As I said when this capitulation was announced, I’d be more willing to acknowledge the merits of the “we’ll fight later” strategy if I truly believed they would fight later.  Frankly, it’s more of a negative reflection on the American electorate than the House leadership that it’s come to this.  The leadership might be squishy, but they’d squish the other way if the public had enough spine to take the debt ceiling seriously.  Too many of us don’t.  We see it as an arcane Washington ritual that isn’t worth fighting over, not if it clogs the intravenous feeding tubes leading from Washington into our veins.  At this particular moment in time, it’s hard to blame the GOP shot-callers for concluding Debt Ceiling 2014 is not the hill to die on.  (Besides, the way things are going, there will probably be another Debt Ceiling 2014.  It won’t take the big spenders long to use up their latest allocation of debt!)


On the other hand, leadership is the prerogative of the bold.  The electorate doesn’t change its mind unless someone makes a strong argument, and stands behind it.  Fox quotes Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots declaring, “A clean debt ceiling is a complete capitulation on the Speaker’s part, and demonstrates that he has lost the ability to lead the House of Representatives, let alone his own party.”

She’s absolutely correct that this is a “capitulation” – there’s no other word to describe it, given the position Republicans have held for the past few years, and Speaker Boehner’s own personal insistence that all future grants of debt would be accompanied by meaningful spending cuts.  I continue to think the Democrats will get very limited mileage out of thumping their chests over this particular capitulation, because the public’s not in a mood to applaud our tottering government sailing even further into debt; it’s not really something the Dems want them to contemplate at length.

But it is dispiriting to the Republican base, especially the Tea Party movement, whose beliefs are the antithesis of everything represented by “clean” debt increases.  It’s galling that the leadership doesn’t even seem interested in making Democrats pay a political price for their total victory on the debt ceiling, which is now effectively retroactive to 2011.  Shouldn’t Boehner and Company be screaming to high heaven about the awful concession they are being forced to make?  Shouldn’t they be reminding people that last fall’s shutdown drama was forced by Democrats, to prevent the kind of ObamaCare delays His Majesty King Barack I is now imposing by royal decree?  Wouldn’t a leadership with guts even be willing to broach the case I made above, about how the American people need to get more serious about halting the fiscal collapse of the federal government – a gravity they could display by electing a Republican majority to the Senate this year?

I’d like to take this opportunity to remind Republican leaders that if you don’t make a strong case for fiscal discipline and restraining deficits at every opportunity, the Democrats are going to use the debt they have created as leverage to extract tax increases in the future, making government even larger, and the private sector smaller.  When you roll over on the debt ceiling in 2014 without a fight, you’re tacitly endorsing the Great Tax Hike of 2015.  Democrats do pretend to be deficit hawks on occasion, when they smell a good opportunity for tax increases.  These “clean” debt hikes sacrifice a pre-emptive strike opportunity for pro-growth conservatives, and reinforce the Democrat narrative that tax rates are the only important factor in government debt accumulation.

Perhaps the Tea Party and conservative base voters will consider the many other reasons to be highly motivated for the midterm election, much as Democrat voters have some pretty big reasons to feel glum about it.  Maybe the GOP will even have some success convincing them it was better to keep their powder dry until after the balance of power in Congress shifts in November.  That would be an easier argument to sell if there weren’t huge boxes of dry powder, some of them dated from the previous decade, stacked up behind those Republican leaders.

Update: As the scene shifts to the Senate, National Journal reports on Ted Cruz’ plans to force 60 votes for passage of the debt ceiling increase, instead of rolling it through on a simple majority:

An aye vote on the debt-ceiling increase isn’t exactly one that Republicans, even moderate ones, are itching to cast. And now Cruz, largely looked to as the architect behind the strategy that led to the government shutdown, will be the one to force them into that position.

“I don’t know if there are any Republicans who want to vote a clean debt limit,” Republican Sen. John Thune said. “Until we receive it from the House and figure out what some of our members may or may not do, it’s hard to sort of speculate about what those outcomes might be.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters that if the House passes a clean bill Tuesday evening, “I am confident we will move over here as quickly as we can. But I put nothing past the tea-party-driven Republican conference.”

Yeah, those crazy Tea Party types might even insist the government stop racking up hundreds of billions of dollars of debt every year!  They might insist the government spend roughly the amount of money the public has agreed to provide it!  They might even be a little peeved about Washington’s debt-fueled ascension to becoming the richest city in America.  Those wacko birds actually take the debt limit seriously.

Shouldn’t people like Harry Reid be on their knees before the American people, humbly begging our pardon for racking up so much debt, and explaining precisely why it is vitally necessary to let the government spend $1.30 or more for every dollar we give it, forever?  Shouldn’t he be apologizing for his disgusting dereliction of duty in failing to produce a budget?  This “clean” debt increase is a catastrophe for the American people, not a triumph.

A critic of Cruz’s plan to force 60 votes would say, as Senator Thune suggests, that he’s just going to force more Republicans to eat a crap sandwich in public, increasing the political damage to the party (or at least embarrassment for the leadership he is so often at odds with) beyond what is absolutely necessary.  That’s a strategic argument; as with the House capitulation, the principled argument says these debt disasters should not be quiet muggings of the American taxpayer carried out in secluded political back alleys.