Did Debt Ceiling Fever Break, or Go into Remission?

The Fiscal Times

The printed version of President Obama’s State of the Union address from 2013 contained several pages dedicated to the federal deficit and the national debt. This year, Obama barely mentioned either topic. The contrast between the two speeches points to a dramatic change in the national conversation about the government’s priorities, one in which the hard right members of the Tea Party appear to have a greatly diminished voice and the Republican party’s traditional establishment is ascendant. 

In the fall, in large part at the urging of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Republicans refused to raise the federal borrowing limit, forcing the government into a lengthy shutdown that left government buildings closed and many services cut off. The result was political disaster for the Republican Party, which seems to have led to a shift in the balance of power within the party, pushing hard right activists like Cruz toward the margin and bolstering the more centrist GOP members, such as House Speaker John Boehner.

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In media reports about the battles over the debt ceiling in 2011, President Obama more than once spoke of the need to “break the fever” of the GOP when it came to threatening a government default over the debt ceiling. Experts say that while the fever may not be completely gone, those who have it worst are no longer calling the shots within the GOP.

“Republicans would be crazy to pick a fight on the debt ceiling again,” said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar with the Brookings Institution. “I don't think the fever has broken for many in the party but cooler heads appear to be prevailing.”

“Republicans have taken it on the chin with the debt ceiling repeatedly, and got nothing for it,” said Stan Collender, a former staff member of both the House and Senate Budget Committees, and now a partner with the Public Relations firm Qorvis. “Not only that, but some of the big components of the GOP tent, including Wall Street, have said stop screwing around with the debt ceiling. The Tea Party wing is clearly weakening. It just doesn’t have the credibility that it had before.” 

To be sure, not all Republicans have given up on extracting some sort of concession from the president on the debt ceiling. On Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that he believed the president would be forced to give Republicans something in exchange. But other news reports suggest his certainty is not shared by senior House leadership.  And even if it were, the type of concessions McConnell is suggesting – approval of the Keystone pipeline or changes to Obamacare – are more about face-saving than about addressing the federal debt and deficit.

This change in direction in Washington doesn’t sit well with conservative activists. They see debt ceiling increases as a chance to force the national conversation toward the subject of federal borrowing and spending, and hate to watch that opportunity go by without putting up a fight for spending cuts, particularly to entitlement programs.

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In recent years, though, it has been the Tea Party members of the Republican delegation in Congress leading those fights and their influence particularly with House Speaker John Boehner, is waning.

“The Tea Party, on the grass roots level, is very much alive but I do think you see in Congress a return to the way things used to be done,” said Romina Boccia, the Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation. She cited the kind of “horse trading” that allowed a recent two-year budget deal to get done.

“It’s a missed opportunity. There’s this feeling settling in that there is just no chance to get anything done on this issue. But that is dangerous because the problems get bigger every year,” Boccia said.

“I think they have found that the intransigence of the Senate and the president have made it clear that they are not going to win the battle,” said Tom Schatz, president of the activist group Citizens Against Government Waste. “They are probably looking at this as something that will avoid a fight an allow them to focus on other opportunities.”

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Scott Lilly, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, warned that it is too soon to count the Tea Party out as a political force. The real strength behind it, he said, has always been the deep pocketed organizations, such as FreedomWorks, funding Tea Party candidates.

“I think they’re still a real, strong tension in the House Republican Conference between this ultra-libertarian strand and the main stream” Lilly said, adding that while the Tea Party contingent is taking a beating in some public opinion polls at the moment, with mid-term elections coming up, it could still return with even greater influence in 2015.

“With Mike Simpson (R-ID), Tom Latham (R-IO) and Frank Wolf (R-VA) retiring, the next House is going to have fewer moderates and more hard right libertarians,” Lilly predicted. “John Boehner’s going to have fewer friends in the next Congress than he has in this Congress.”

What’s happening, he suggested, is that the Tea Party is simply biding its time.

“If they want to carry out this Libertarian agenda, they have to keep their heads down until the election passes,” he said. “They’re not going to show their claws until they feel like they can make a difference, and right now they don’t.”

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