GOP Infighting Is a Positive Development

February 10, 2011

While The New York Times is gloating over “turmoil” in the GOP House “ranks,” internal disagreements over spending and other issues are a healthy development and should lead to more disciplined and aggressive action.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama presented himself as a remade fiscal hawk, promising to freeze discretionary spending for five years. Conservatives immediately called him out on his disingenuousness. After greatly escalating baseline spending the past two years, his freeze pledge, especially when coupled with his gross inattention to the looming entitlement crisis, would just lock us onto our inexorable path to national bankruptcy.

In their pledge to the nation, Republicans promised, “With common-sense exceptions for seniors, veterans, and our troops, we will roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, saving us at least $100 billion in the first year alone.”

So the stage was set for the new GOP congressional majority to make good on its promise to trim the budget back to pre-bailout levels. This was the Republicans’ opportunity to build on the credibility they had richly earned in voting to repeal Obamacare.

Slowly, however, word began to circulate that the GOP House leadership’s proposed cuts would be $74 billion instead of $100 billion. Some argue that even that number is overstated because it represents cuts based on Obama’s proposed budget rather than on the actual budget levels in place for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Using that baseline, the cuts would be closer to $43 billion, and when you add certain increases for Pentagon, homeland security and veterans programs, the real number supposedly would be $35 billion.

Rep. Paul Ryan and the House leadership argued that these would be initial cuts, applicable to the continuing resolution, and would be only the first step. Deeper cuts would be forthcoming with the actual budget, they said, which is presumably when they intend to fulfill their pledge. Moreover, the current budget year began in October, with Obama-sized spending then in place, so these cuts would be only for seven months and would be much higher than they seem, if you annualize them.

National Review’s Rich Lowry reported that newly elected House freshmen were in open revolt over these numbers and demanding far greater cuts. In response, the leadership, according to a GOP leadership aide, said that the message had been received and that “the bill that passes the House will cut substantially more.”

This is a welcome turn of events. Infighting over greater cuts can only be regarded as positive and a reflection of the influence of the tea party and the conservative congressmen it helped elect.

This episode, which is far from over, illustrates that all congressmen are subject to strict vigilance. “Trust” is no longer enough. This is a day-by-day affair that involves daily proof of their commitment, because our fiscal crisis permits no time for rest. Beltway intoxication is such a powerful contagion that truly conservative representatives are going to have to make a special and persistent effort, not just to govern responsibly but also to take their case to the people regularly.

If Rep. Ryan and the leadership believed their initial proposed cuts were in line with their pledge, they probably should have done a better job explaining it so that even their strong supporters weren’t left in the dark over whether the numbers were being manipulated (e.g., based on Obama’s proposed budget instead of last fiscal year’s).

In scanning House Speaker John Boehner’s and Rep. Ryan’s websites, nothing appeared to jump off their home pages addressing the internal disputes over the proposed budget cuts. I may have missed it, but the point is that we shouldn’t have to look for it. As conservatives in their corner, we shouldn’t have to feel like passengers on a commercial airline experiencing wicked turbulence and hearing no reassuring words from the cockpit. It’s time for them to get out their bullhorns and explain it — early and often — because their success in these budget wars depends on strong support from their grass-roots allies.

On the other hand, those of us in the grass roots, while holding our representatives’ feet to the fire, should also not just be gratuitous critics — and I’m certainly not trying to be one of those with this column. We should encourage them when they’re on the right track, such as with their vote to repeal Obamacare. Though the repeal effort failed in the Senate, House Republicans are planning to vote to block spending for Obamacare, which is important because the White House intends to proceed with its implementation in defiance of the recent federal court order invalidating the law.

I do believe Paul Ryan is the real deal on budget and serious entitlement reform, and I’m encouraged by most of what I’m seeing from him, Boehner and the rest of the GOP leadership team. What they’re doing is far more difficult than our work as sideline critics.

But we’re not always going to be satisfied with their pace, so we should be immensely gratified that aggressive freshmen prevailed upon them to increase the cuts. This kind of conflict resolution we can support.