GOP Leaders Aren't Even Pretending the Debt-Ceiling Fight Is About Spending

Last time around, Tea Party-inspired conservatives wanted spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit. This time, not so much.
Larry Downing/Reuters

Back in the halcyon days of the Tea Party, conservatives realized that the debt ceiling gave them big leverage on the president to force spending cuts. They would threaten the full faith and credit of the United States, Obama would cave to avoid default, and the result would be a major spending reduction in return for raising the debt limit. Critics of the strategy argued it was immoral and dangerous to prevent the government from paying debts it had already rung up in exchange for future spending cuts, but both were clearly related to federal spending. But it was clever -- and it worked, in the form of the sequester. 

That was then, this is now. The Tea Party is less popular than ever, And while the debt ceiling remains a negotiating chit for the GOP, Republicans leaders are hardly even pretending that this is about spending anymore. Now, as Jonathan Chait points out, they're just asking for the implementation of Mitt Romney's domestic agenda.

Consider the list of demands House leaders have issued in exchange for raising the debt ceiling -- or really, just suspending it -- which Derek Thompson called "insane" this morning. The big items are, in order: a one-year Obamacare delay; tax reform according to Paul Ryan's budget; and energy reforms that include approving the Keystone XL pipeline and eliminating almost every major White House environmental regulation. Coming in the last two slots are spending reforms and a few health-spending tweaks.

It's tempting (if unprovable) to see this as a symptom of the decline of the Tea Party as a force in national and Republican circles: The GOP has taken the techniques of the insurgent movement, hollowed them, and repurposed them for the establishment's purposes. What's interesting is that rank-and-file conservatives seem to be seeing right through it. National Review's Jonathan Strong spoke to Republican back benchers who were distinctly unimpressed:

“It definitely has a lot of goodies in it – things that arguably would grow the economy and arguably would generate revenue. But still you have to address the spending problem,” said Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama.

“The reason that we have to raise the debt ceiling is because we have deficits. The reason that we have deficits is because we spend a whole lot more money than we bring in in revenue. And this debt ceiling package does not fix the underlying cause of the problem, which are the deficits,” he added.

Representative Joe Barton of Texas also gave an impassioned speech in the meeting about how the proposal was not the strategy Republicans had agreed to at a now-famous meeting in Williamsburg, Va. where House leadership vowed to use the next debt ceiling fight to put the government on a “path” to balancing the budget in ten years.

These guys really care about spending and a balanced budget more than anything -- and they can see when they're being pushed to the side in favor of other priorities.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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