Many pundits interpreted the recently concluded debt-limit deal as a difficult yet significant victory for the Washington establishment. They point to widely reported Tea Party dissatisfaction with the endgame compromise as proof of their hypothesis. Minimal support for the deal from many of the most conservative GOP members only strengthens this conviction.
Alas, it might be a good time for a brief foray into how historic and unique the debt compromise result was in light of recent political history:
Fact 1: None of the good that will come out of this debate would have occurred but for the 2010 midterm elections. Only a newly elected GOP House guaranteed that at least some deficit relief would get accomplished as a result of two major George W. Bush-era wars and profligate deficit spending during the Obama years. A Nancy Pelosi-led House simply would have rubber-stamped the seventh debt-limit increase over the past three years, no questions asked.
Fact 2: Only a Republican House could guarantee no tax increases as part of a budget deal. An Obama-Reid-Pelosi leadership team assuredly would have included the termination of the Bush tax cuts as a critical element to any such plan. In the words of the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Dave Camp, Michigan Republican, any tax increase “is not going to happen.” America’s primary job creators - small-business entrepreneurs - are forever grateful for this result.
Fact 3: Entitlement program cuts (really, smaller increases) did not survive the final agreement; the special congressional committee created to locate an additional $1.5 trillion in savings will be required to perform some heavy lifting here. Fortunately, the aforementioned new House members appear more than ready to attack this third rail of modern politics. The determination finally to reform heretofore unchecked entitlement spending is not entirely new to Washington - in the past, there have been elements within both parties willing to engage the task. What makes the present situation so historic is the number of members, mostly House freshmen, dedicated to doing what everyone knows needs to be done - coming attack ads and fierce establishment criticism notwithstanding.
Fact 4: Never has a debt-limit increase been linked to budget cuts in such a direct way. Further, in light of the strategy’s success, this connection may very well become the new modus operandi for Congress and the executive branch. In effect, it’s a new avenue for bipartisan budget hawks forever on the hunt for new ways to control federal spending.
Fact 5: The traditional media brain trust spent the past few months either demonizing the Tea Party or bemoaning the dysfunction in Washington - sometimes blaming the latter on the former. Indeed, the acrimony with which leading liberal commentators approached the debt-limit debate speaks to their utter frustration with those who simply will not be co-opted by the time-tested methodologies of the establishment. One notable observation about the newly empowered freshmen: This new crowd is not terribly intimidated when labeled “malcontents,” “terrorists,” “hostage-takers,” “Nazis,” etc. A further point: The philosophical gridlock that transpired over the course of the past few months was and will continue to be predictable - even healthy. It was predictable because the American people sent wildly conflicting messages about what they want between the Obamamania election of 2008 and the conservative revolution of 2010.
The resulting clash between diametrically opposed worldviews should have been expected by everyone. The exchange is healthy because it necessitated a conflict and compromise between an increasingly left-leaning Democratic Party intent on ever-higher discretionary and entitlement spending and a Tea Party-inspired GOP equally intent on resisting tax increases on already overburdened taxpayers and reining in Washington’s propensity to spend more money than it collects. Next potential compromise: GOP support for a tax reform package closing tax preferences, not raising rates, in exchange for Democratic support on entitlement reform.
Fact 6: Friday’s credit-rating debacle will further strengthen the resolve of the young, hard-charging fiscal hawks. Wednesday’s cries of “They didn’t cut enough” certainly reverberated around the world on Friday as the full faith and credit of the U.S. government suffered a historic blow.
Next up: fiscal 2012 budget negotiations. May the next healthy conflict begin anew.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is the former Republican governor of Maryland.