House Republicans plan to celebrate their new majority status with a victory lap of largely symbolic gestures.
On Thursday, they plan to blow part of a workday by having the U.S. Constitution read aloud. It will be instructive to see how many members remain on the floor for the entire reading of a document they are expected to know intimately in any case and how many of those who do stay will be bowed prayerfully over their smart phones.
The House also plans to cut its budget by 5 percent, also a symbolic gesture since it will only generate $25 million to $30 million in savings in a deficit of $1.3 trillion.
Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, promises a vote to repeal the Democrats’ prize health care reform, right before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech Jan. 27.
Even though Upton confidently says he might have a two-thirds majority in favor of repeal, the number will be impressive but meaningless as long as Obama is in the White House and the Democrats have a majority in the Senate.
Those votes will provide an opportunity for the 61 newly minted House GOP lawmakers to grandstand and delight their anti-Washington, anti-spending supporters, but the problem with victory laps is that they go in a circle.
Awaiting them when the celebration is over is the unfinished business of the last Congress, including 12 overdue spending bills. If they do not like Obama’s budget, and they surely will not, they have to draw up and enact one of their own. And they have to get started on 12 new spending bills for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Matters will become deadly serious in March or thereafter when Congress must raise the ceiling, currently $14.3 trillion, on how much the government can borrow. Many of the members, new and old, are talking about using the threat of inaction to force spending reductions. The problem with this is the risk of inadvertently putting the U.S. government in default.
Outspoken new GOP Rep. Mike Kelly said it would be “absolutely irresponsible” to raise the debt limit. Kelly was undoubtedly a very fine auto dealer back in Butler, Pa., but Obama’s chief economics adviser, Austan Goolsbee, is much closer to the mark. He said, “The impact on the economy would be catastrophic.”
There is a sort of precedent for this kind of highhanded disdain for responsibility. In fall 2008, House members, using similarly tough talk, voted to kill a $700 billion bailout of the financial system. The Dow Jones index promptly took a record one-day swan dive of 778 points, and foreign financial markets also fell dramatically.
The House scurried back to Washington and sheepishly reversed the vote.
Dale McFeatters is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.