A confluence of events has forced Republicans back to fiscal conservatism en masse. This is a happy coincidence for fiscal conservatives, who until recently could be forgiven for wondering if they had a political home. These events are likely to keep Republicans fiscally frugal at least long enough to see how this stance plays out in the 2010 elections.
The first event pushing Republicans to revisit spending restraint was the need for a stark contrast with the Democratic majority. Such is always the fate of the minority -- either find an issue that shows you are favorably and distinctly different from the majority, or become accustomed to political obscurity. The burgeoning budget deficit immediately offered just such an opportunity.
The Congressional Budget Office provided the incoming Congress with a projected $1.2 trillion federal deficit for the current fiscal year. That is a 160% increase from the previous year's record $455 billion deficit. CBO also estimated deficits over the next two years as well -- both also higher than the 2008 deficit.
High as they are, these figures understated the deficit impact almost as soon as CBO released them. First, they measured expenditures from the $700 billion TARP rescue program in net present value -- not the higher cash accounting used by Treasury. The estimates also did not include the costs of any additional recession responses -- such as the recently passed $800 billion economic stimulus bill.
Hand-in-hand with Republicans' need for just such a contrasting issue, went the fact that their deep minority status allowed them the luxury of seizing it. Effectively excluded from power in the federal government's elected branches, Republicans were at the same time freed of the responsibility for governing.
For the majority party, governing's responsibility is never long absent. And this year's predominant issue was awaiting Democrats as soon as they returned to Washington. The recession, which fueled the large projected deficits, had to be immediately addressed. Democrats in particular had to address the economic crisis. Virtually encoded in the modern party's DNA, the Depression left Democrats with an ingrained belief that their party's effective rebirth came as a result of Hoover and Republicans' inaction during that crisis.
A sense of urgency meant Democrats could not wait long to act. Control of the White House and dominant congressional majorities meant Democrats did not have to -- or seriously include Republicans broadly when they did. They did none of these, producing a signed stimulus bill within a month's of the President's inauguration.
Combined with more than enough votes to pass their own proposal, they also had the political necessity of serving their expectant supporters as well. Both the process and the resulting product did not present Republicans with serious wedges that would splinter potential unity. If anything, it solidified it. The recession's seriousness left few politicians of any persuasion of the opinion that nothing need be done. The division was over what. However, the overwhelming political imbalance meant that division never had to be seriously explored.
Where a tax cut-tilted stimulus bill could have presented Republicans with significant incentives to support, the final product did not. CBO estimated the $787 billion bill as being 3-1 spending increases to tax cuts -- with just $212 billion in revenue reductions over ten years.
In the end, just three Republicans in both bodies supported the stimulus bill. The remainder must feel themselves much the same as Brer Rabbit did when thrown into the briar patch in Joel Chandler Harris' children's story.
The fox in that story, having finally gotten Brer Rabbit at his mercy, is convinced that no fate could be worse than being hurled into the thorny thicket. Of course, the fox quickly discovers his error. As soon as the rabbit lands safely in the briars, he is heard to holler back “Bred and born in a briar patch, Brer Fox -- bred and born in a briar patch!”
It has yet to be determined if Republicans will equally prosper having thusly been returned to their roots, but for the moment, they have no less hope that they will. And very little choice but to try.