Historically, the House is often rowdy and barely governable, and it was designed to be that way, given that members have two-year terms compared to six –year terms in the Senate, small, demanding constituencies, and a host of other pressures. In this one sense, the U.S. House is like the British House of Commons: lots of noise and chaos, at least until the party whips swing into action.
We had a big election last November, and a large group of rattle-the-cage Republican and Tea Party representatives were sent to the House. Well, they’re rattling the cage. That also happened after 1974, 1980, 1994, and 2006, just to mention four other wave elections. But as this process unfolds, and everybody has their say, the House will still likely go along with some package that raises the debt limit in the end. With the exception of a few dozen on the right, House members aren’t going to want to be responsible for a stock and bond market crash and a new recession.
We’re seeing the process play out in the high stakes negotiations between President Obama and congressional leaders over a major deficit reduction package and legislation to raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling – and it’s not pretty. The most conservative House GOP caucus members, especially most freshmen, have their champion, Majority Leader Eric Cantor. The more mainstream members have theirs in House Speaker John Boehner. Is this Boehner-Cantor tug of war a genuine disagreement over principle or procedure? A good cop-bad cop ruse that will end with a united front to pass something? Cantor acting out his ambitions to be Speaker? Some combination of all these? It will become clear shortly.
As for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposed “last-choice option” that would allow Obama to raise the debt ceiling repeatedly without Congressional approval, you can like it or dislike it but it was shrewd. It will never happen, of course, but it was a clear signal, mainly to Republicans, that the debt limit has to be raised, one way or the other, to avert the first default on U.S. debt or government obligations in history.
McConnell senses that some Republicans are on the verge of overplaying their hand. McConnell also threw some red meat to the anti-debt base by reminding them that they’ll never get what they want as long as Obama is in power—and he’s got another year and a half. Ergo, some compromise is inevitable. If they don’t like his proposal—and despite the Wall Street Journal’s backing, most won’t since it gives Obama too much power—then they have to find another way to do what has to be done. And again, my bet is that “another way” will be found in time. The stakes are too high for both sides, and people will move back from the brink as the blame-avoidance motive takes hold. I have no idea what package will eventually pass, but one will.
Larry Sabato is a professor of politics and Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia
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