Republicans officially took control of the House of Representatives today and are intent on getting down to “business”. First up, and probably the only thing really on their agenda for the next two years, confrontation rather than cooperation. After reading the constitution aloud (and doubtless glossing over that part about “promoting the general welfare”), one of the first orders of business will be a symbolic vote to repeal “Obamacare”. Excruciating numbers of oversight hearings are also promised, along with futile attempts to enact promises the sober ones know they cannot keep. In fact, they are already busy qualifying them. Balancing the budget is dreadfully important, so every bill has to come with a way to cover its cost while not adding to the tax burden. Bills to reduce taxes though are exempt. Defense spending is also exempt. This means, of course, that the deficit will just keep exploding unless they can somehow kill Medicare and Social Security. Isn’t Republican fiscal austerity wonderful?
Meanwhile, some Republicans are salivating for a showdown on the federal debt ceiling, which should arrive around March. The smart Republicans like new speaker John Boehner know it will be political suicide if it is not extended and probably cause a catastrophic global financial crisis as well. The reality is that Republicans control just one house, not two, and the executive remains in Democratic hands. So their hand is ultimately a weak one. However, Republicans have also learned that bluster can often suffice for power, so expect to see plenty of hot talk and bravado from their caucus. It won’t intimidate the Senate, which has a habit of looking down its nose at the House, nor Obama. Arguably, with so many principled Tea Partiers now in Congress, they may well put principle ahead of a catastrophic financial crisis anyhow. It would be crazy but it would finally drive a stake through the heart of the Republican Party. Maybe, if we ever recover, that would be a good thing.
If they are smart, Republicans will soon learn that it is best to pay lip service to the causes they supposedly ran on. It is no wonder that they want to cut discretionary spending (except for defense). Attempts here will be mostly symbolic as well, but it’s the one area that won’t get them too much political heat. Many are lusting to cut Social Security and Medicare. While Americans are wary of these costly programs, they are even more wary of sudden changes to them, and want bipartisan solutions to ensure both are fiscally sustainable. This goes doubly for older Americans, paradoxically the people who voted disproportionately for Republicans.
So I expect that voters will quickly sour with House Republicans. In fact, the public already trusts Obama more than Republicans. The Republican “mandate” that John Boehner sees was in reality Republicans voting massively while Democrats and Independents voted in a lackluster fashion. As Democrats also demonstrated in 2008, disproportionate turnout wins elections. The mandate comes from those who took the time to vote, which is not the same thing as the American public at large. This suggests that Republicans hold on the House, as is true with Democrats’ hold on the Senate is tenuous at best.
What polls do tell us is that Americans want jobs and a higher standard of living. Jobs may be arriving slowly, but a higher standard of living does not come cheap. American businesses are awash in tax cuts, credits and other incentives and so far, businesses have largely chosen to hold on to their profits and when they hire or invest, do so overseas where the dynamics are better. Republicans will talk about jobs, but true to form, it will be mostly lip service. They will of course raise the expectation with voters that by cutting taxes and government spending more jobs will emerge. Jobs will return, but not as quickly as the unemployed would like, and they will pay a lot less than the ones that were lost.
As Republicans demonstrated with their tax cut deal, what really matters to them is enriching their class. So I expect they will frequently get sidelined into things that don’t matter. Trying to get rid of “Obamacare” is just the tip of this iceberg. Some Americans are disgruntled by the health care law, but many who are disgruntled are because it did not go far enough. Add these people to those who like the law and you have a majority of Americans that want either the current health care law or want to make it more liberal. Moreover, all the pieces of the health care legislation are connected. Taking away the individual mandate, for example, while keeping the requirement for health care insurers to insure everyone is a way to guarantee astronomical premium increases. This may be good from Republicans’ perspective, but bad to most of us that still have health insurance. The reality is that if health insurance reform truly constrains costs, is one of the biggest ways to grow our economy and jobs. One of the primary reasons that Americans’ median income went down in the last decade was because of rising health care costs. Moreover, Republicans are playing with fire if they try to remove certain popular provisions, like not allowing insurers to turn down those with preexisting conditions.
In short, Republicans will likely prove their own worst enemy unless they take the unexpected path and actually work toward compromise. It is hard to see how that will happen, with a majority of Republicans now Tea Partiers, or endorsed by Tea Partiers. Meanwhile, Democrats will discover that being in the minority is not always bad. Republicans have inherited a hell of a mess, ironically a mess that they largely created in previous Congresses and administrations. House Republicans have also made dangerous and crazy promises about cutting government, cuts that if enacted will just estrange them from voters.
Buckle up your seat belts. Let’s hope there are enough sane Republicans and Democrats in the House to avoid the impending train wreck.