Republicans in the US House of Representatives seem shocked by their party’s meltdown on the so-called “fiscal cliff.” They should not be.
The uncompromising conservatives who blocked House Speaker John Boehner’s tax bill were merely sticking to policies that Boehner and nearly all other Republican leaders have pushed, without reservation, for years: It is always wrong to raise tax rates on anyone, no matter how rich. The US’ big deficit is entirely “a spending problem, not a revenue problem.” Also, in any deficit-reduction plan, spending cuts must overwhelm new revenues by a ratio of 10-to-1, if not more.
To be surprised by Boehner’s failure is to assume one of two things: Either House conservatives did not really believe their party’s bedrock principles, or they would compromise after seeing US President Barack Obama win re-election on a deficit-reduction plan that called for higher taxes on the wealthy.
Neither was true and now the Republican Party is reeling from unbending fealty to its core principles.
The US Congress’ structure makes compromise essential and the US once lionized 19th century US senator and congressman Henry Clay as “the Great Compromiser.” Yet the modern Republican Party is heavily energized by the anit-tax, small government Tea Party movement, which sees compromise as a triumph of flabby pragmatism over courageous conviction.
All these threads weaved themselves into a knot on Thursday that strangled Boehner’s bid to position his party behind a tiny concession on tax hikes. Whereas Obama campaigned to raise tax rates on couples earning more than US$250,000, Boehner asked his House Republican colleagues to accept higher rates only on millionaires.
When an undisclosed number refused, Boehner had to abruptly send Congress home for the holidays.
“We had a number of our members who just really didn’t want to be perceived as having raised taxes,” Boehner said on Friday.
The Republican establishment has long embraced conservative activist Grover Norquist’s drive to persuade Republican lawmakers to pledge never to raise taxes on anyone, no matter how big the gap between federal revenue and spending.
Norquist on Wednesday said Boehner’s proposed tax on millionaires would not technically violate the pledge, but it was too late.
The collapse of Boehner’s tax effort “weakens the entire Republican Party,” said Republican Representative Steve LaTourette, who is retiring after 18 years.
“It’s the continuing dumbing down of the Republican Party and we are going to be seen more and more as a bunch of extremists that can’t even get a majority of our own people to support policies that we’re putting forward. If you’re not a governing majority, you’re not going to be a majority very long,” he said.
Republican consultant and writer Craig Shirley told the Washington Post: “The national GOP [Grand Old Party] is now simply a collection of warring tribal factions.”
Republicans point to their success in maintaining control of the House of Representatives, assured for 16 of the 20 years since 1994.
Yet it is also true that Democrats this year won more House votes nationwide than Republicans. Republicans kept their majority because Republican-controlled state legislatures in some key states were able to shape the boundaries of congressional districts in a partisan manner to concentrate Democratic voters in a few districts and maximize Republican strength in others.
Republicans have also lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections.
For some time, signs have indicated that the Republican Party is shifting away from majority public opinion on key issues.
Despite Republican leaders’ insistence that the deficit be tackled with spending cuts alone and no new taxes, a recent Pew Research Center poll found a different public view. The vast majority of Americans say the deficit should be addressed with a mix of tax increases — particularly on the wealthy — and spending cuts in major programs.
Yet scores, if not hundreds, of House members focus more intensely on their home district’s politics than on their national party’s reputation. Many Republicans from staunchly conservative districts fear a primary election challenge from someone to their right.
It is still possible for Obama, Boehner and Congress to reach a deal to avert the fiscal cliff before the Jan. 1 deadline, but for now, the House Republicans’ internal warfare makes it easier for opponents to paint them as extremists unworthy of serious negotiations.