The House of Representatives is uniquely responsible for controlling the so called “purse strings” of government. Republicans promised when they won control of the House they would use this power to limit government excesses, control spending and reduce the deficit. However, appropriations must still pass the Democrat controlled Senate and be signed by President Obama. Republicans continue to examine the best way to meet their goals and keep their promises, but events are converging to give Democrats a possible political advantage this year.
I should provide some recent history. The Democrats were unable to pass most of the spending bills that would make up the 2011 budget. Instead, a series of continuing resolutions were passed to fund the government until March. Republicans intend to use this opportunity to pass immediate budget cuts and spending reductions this year. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-VA, has also stated that an amendment to defund Obamacare can be expected next week when the House takes up the budget for the rest of 2011. While a majority of Americans continue to favor a repeal of Obamacare, attempts to do so have failed to pass the Democrat controlled Senate so the budget remains one of the few tools available to Republicans on this front.
Additionally, the Damoclean Sword hanging over the Republicans is the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling is the technical and legal limit of U.S. borrowing and the level of U.S. borrowing is expected to reach the debt ceiling this spring. The debt ceiling has been raised multiple times in the past, most famously over then Senator Obama’s vociferous opposition in 2006. This year the debt ceiling has become a symbol of out of control spending in Washington and rallying cry for Tea Party activists. President Obama has stated the debt ceiling must be raised to prevent a technical default on U.S. obligations. While Republicans are divided on the issue, many Tea Party backed representatives have stated they will not vote to raise the debt ceiling. Polls also show the public remains strongly opposed to another debt ceiling increase.
This gives Democrats a significant tactical advantage. If the Republicans strictly adhere to the promises and principles they espoused during the election, they will continue to offer proposals with sharp limits and reductions in spending, as many Republican leaders have done. All Democrats need to do is block Republican proposals in the Senate. Then Democrats can use the threat of a government shutdown or impending debt crises to bludgeon Republicans with charges of being fiscally irresponsible and obstructionist. President Obama has recently attempted to appear as if he is reaching out to Republicans. This will allow him to claim he has tried to work across the aisle and blame any failure to reach agreement on the GOP. The President can simply continue to repeat that he will consider “reasonable” Republican proposals while simultaneously rejecting all Republican proposals as too extreme. It is a tactic he has used successfully in the past.
No one is certain what would happen if the U.S. reaches the debt ceiling as it has never happened, but there is some expectation that it would negatively affect the credit rating of the U.S. which could play havoc on interest rates. This puts the Democrats in a position to either force the Republicans to “tactically” retreat from their principles or face voter wrath if the government finds itself unable to operate. Similarly, some analysts expect interest rates to increase significantly in the next few months based on economic conditions and the policy of easy money the Federal Reserve is continuing to follow. Inflation is also expected by some to once again become a serious issue this year, perhaps at levels not seen since the late 1970s. I expect that were any of this to occur, Democrats would attempt to blame this on Republicans as well.
The founders rightly set up a system by which no party in power could simply ram through their agenda. This is a good thing and one of the pillars of our republic. Many Republicans remember the infamous government shutdown of the ‘90s which helped President Clinton regain lost momentum after the “Republican Revolution” of 1994. With this in mind Republicans are treading carefully. Republicans should not abandon their principles as doing so would betray the voters who helped them achieve their stunning 2010 electoral victories. However, they need to consider their next moves carefully and hope they can articulate their positions to the American people before the Democrats force a crises and lay the blame at the feet of the GOP.