While the White House and congressional Republicans shadow box on the verge of the fiscal cliff, the federal government is busy digging below the cliff and raising its height. According to a Congressional Budget Office report released on Friday, the federal government borrows 46 cents of each dollar it spends. We're only two months into Fiscal Year 2013 and the debt has already increased by about $300 billion.
On Friday, Speaker Boehner told the press, "This isn't a progress report because there's no progress to report." That's one part of the good news. The other part is that whatever deal Boehner and Obama may yet reach isn't guaranteed to pass into law.
Boehner's purge of dissenting conservatives from key committees should have pushed his conservative members too far. Removing from the budget committee those who didn't support the Ryan budget because it didn't do enough to balance the budget -- which it didn't -- Boehner is stamping out conservatives' ability to affect House action. If they go along with him -- if they vote for a Boehner-engineered deal that raises taxes without major spending cuts including Social Security and Medicare cuts -- they shouldn't be re-elected in 2014.
Conservatives know that, but Boehner apparently doesn't care. Boehner is so desperate to keep his personal power as Speaker, he's apparently willing to throw the conservatives overboard. Boehner is thinking as if he were a liberal: his cognitive dissonance believes that he can preserve his power by sacrificing the conservative margin by which he holds it.
The question comes down to this: how long will House conservatives go along with Boehner's political malpractice in dealing with Obama? This problem isn't new. When Obama came into office in 2009, Boehner forbade House Republicans from criticizing the new president. A bunch of House members called me asking for help and as a result of press pressure from me and others, Boehner relented.
At that point, Boehner was only Minority Leader. When he took the speakership, he continued to push conservatives to go along with his deals. They did so on the 2011 Budget Control Act which raised the debt ceiling and didn't cut spending. It booted the issue to the so-called "supercommittee" which, inevitably, failed to agree. Thus was the fiscal cliff created. Under the BCA, tax hikes take effect in January and sequestration takes another $500-$600 billion out of the defense budget. Another $500 billion comes out of domestic spending and nothing was done to reform the programs that are bankrupting the nation, Medicare and Social Security.
So far, even Boehner's purge of dissenting conservatives hasn't forced them to rebel. What happens when Boehner makes a fiscal cliff deal that hikes taxes without cutting federal spending and reducing the federal debt?
That's the conservatives' problem. They were elected to reduce what the government spends, and so far they haven't. If we go over the cliff and those cuts go along with the huge increase in tax rates, Republicans are going to take the blame. A new Pew poll confirms that.
They'll take the blame because they voted for the sequestration bill in the Budge Control Act. People see it as their deal, not Obama's.
Obama, Durbin, and the rest of the Dems are insisting that Social Security and Medicare be unaffected by any fiscal cliff deal. They engineered the Budget Control Act sequestration deal so that if it happens, both of those entitlement programs are exempt from the cuts it imposes.
As George Will pointed out recently, falling off the fiscal cliff would accomplish a substantial part of Obama's second-term agenda. He'd get the tax hikes he wants, the defense cuts he's been working for all along, and all without cutting Social Security and Medicare, two of the biggest reasons that federal spending is out of control.
The only way to avoid falling over the cliff will be to make a deal that accomplishes what Obama wants most: a deal that preserves spending and still raises taxes. Boehner is a creature of the deal: he'll make a bad deal unless conservatives rebel and either prevent it behind the scenes or refuse to vote for it once it's made.
To do so will require a lot of political courage. If Boehner wins -- if he makes a bad deal and it's passed into law -- his retribution against those who opposed him could be damaging, but only inside the halls of Congress. The 2010 conservatives and those who were elected before them came to Washington to reduce federal spending. It'll be easier to explain their opposition to Boehner than it would to explain it to angry constituents why they backed the Speaker.
Conservatives are at a turning point. If they go along with a bad deal now they won't be able to take a stand against it in the next two to four years. Obama wants to eliminate Republicans' ability to thwart his actions. He'd be satisfied with no deal on the fiscal cliff or to get one that is a terrible deal for conservatives.
Those are the only choices conservatives will have. If they give in now, they'll not be able to stand against any but the smallest of Obama initiatives for the foreseeable future. There will be no bills passed that stop Obama's regulatory strangulation of the economy, because they won't pass the Senate. There will be no stopping Obama's emasculation of the military because it's already done so much damage that can't be undone without strong Republican leadership and a defense secretary who wants to undo it, which will never be the case while Obama is in the White House.
If just a few conservative rebels tell Boehner they won't vote for a bad deal they can prevent him from making one. They need to agree among themselves on how to tell a good deal from a bad one, and that's the easy part. A good deal is one that doesn't raise tax rates for anyone. A good deal makes enough spending cuts -- now, not in another "if-then" deal -- to cut the federal debt in half in ten years or less without gutting the defense budget. A good deal will reduce and reform both Social Security and Medicare to ensure their solvency and decrease their cost.
If only a few conservatives make that their public position, others will join them both publicly and privately. They can block a bad deal if they try.
In the fiscal cliff negotiations, Obama has an opportunity to moot Republican opposition to his agenda for his entire second term. If conservatives take a stand now, they can thwart him and at the same time rein in their wayward Speaker. If they don't, they may not get another chance in the next four years. No deal is better than a bad deal, for the nation and for every congressional conservative.