Republicans returned to control of the House this week after a shorter-than-expected stay in the wilderness following the crushing losses of the 2006 and 2008 elections. A remarkable coalition of angry fiscal conservatives and disillusioned independents shepherded the GOP from irrelevancy to power in the 2010 midterms; neither group has a great deal of trust in the Republican party. Instead, they see it as the only alternative to an out-of-control Democratic agenda. That marriage of convenience -- and the outsize expectations of the two groups -- may put the GOP majority in a position where anything short of revolution will be seen as failure to half, and the hardball tactics needed for revolution would lose the other half.
Thanks to the agenda of the Democratic majority, Republicans peeled away many of the independents that had flocked to the banner of Barack Obama in 2008. The GOP doesn’t deserve as much credit for success as Democrats get the blame for the bait-and-switch technique during two electoral cycles, in which they sold themselves as fiscally responsible moderates who wanted to balance the supposed runaway rightward tilt of the George W. Bush administration. These voters wanted rational and competent governance, not the ideological equivalent of a runaway train to either the right or left. In 2010, they voted for Republicans to end the overreach by Nancy Pelosi and President Obama and to force Democrats to work with Republicans in a responsible manner.
In contrast, the fiscal conservatives who comprise the base of the Tea Party don’t want cooperation, consensus, or compromise. They see the 2010 election and the new House majority as a chance for a revolution, not an evolution, and they want confrontation. If the House cannot get the Senate and the White House to agree to massive rollbacks in government spending, a government shutdown won’t be an unfortunate byproduct but a welcomed step toward changing the Beltway paradigm.
Obviously, with these conflicting goals and expectations, the GOP runs a serious risk of fracturing its electoral coalition. Put that together with the challenges of a Senate still controlled by Democrats and a hostile White House, and success may be a little difficult to visualize. However, Republicans will have some early opportunities to score victories that should keep both constituencies satisfied, if not entirely ecstatic, and build their credibility as a governing party ahead of the 2012 elections.
The first of these opportunities will likely be the most important. Democrats failed to pass a budget for fiscal 2011, despite having historically huge majorities in both chambers and one of their own in the White House. Outrage over pork in the lame-duck session killed an omnibus bill for the first time in recent memory, and Democrats had to settle for a continuing resolution that expires in mid-February. The GOP has an opportunity to kill funding for out-of-control agencies not in October but almost immediately.
Majority Leader John Boehner has promised an agency-by-agency approach for annual budgeting rather than the normal 12 appropriation bills each year, but Congress won’t have time for that approach for the 2011 final budget. They may have to use an omnibus approach themselves, presumably with the pork and excessive funding removed. Still, the compressed time frame gives the GOP an opportunity to force the Democrats into accepting some substantial cuts in this budget year, an opportunity that only exists because of the incompetence and/or political pusillanimity of the Democrats. Finishing up what Democrats inexplicably left undone will draw an immediate contrast between the parties on competence and leadership.
An upcoming vote on raising the debt limit will present its own risks and potential rewards. The Tea Party activists on the right have already demanded a no vote, but that would almost certainly result in an American default, since there simply isn’t enough time to kill enough spending to keep the debt from crashing over the statutory limit. A default and its attendant economic damage would lose the independents from the coalition, who will demand responsible leadership from the GOP. Boehner still can end up pleasing both sides of his coalition by tying a smaller debt-limit increase to specific and substantive cuts in spending, perhaps especially with some sort of entitlement reform or perhaps even a balanced-budget amendment that might win some support from Democrats on its own. Boehner could even try for a bigger win by trading the debt-limit increase for the amendment that would cap federal spending at 20 percent of GDP, proposed in March 2010 by Reps. Mike Pence and Jeb Hensarling.
Most Tea Party voters expect the House Oversight Committee to provide a forum for attacking the administration, especially after Democrats provided no check to Obama's broad view of executive power. Incoming chair Darrell Issa's initial signals have disappointed some activists with his focus on the use of funds in stimulus and TARP spending over the last two years and some limited probes of regulatory expansion. Still, Issa may have decided to go slow, building credibility by starting with less-partisan oversight issues to better escalate his probes later in this term. Republican leadership seems wary of turning Oversight into a conspiracy-theory panel, but they had better take care not to delay too long in providing the kind of check on Obama’s expansive executive efforts that voters assumed they would get with a new Republican majority in the House.
Mostly, Republican leaders will have to manage expectations for the next two years. With Democrats outflanking them in the upper chamber and the White House, opportunities for uncompromising victories will be few. They need to fight for those victories, and remind their coalition that revolutions can – and may need to – unfold slowly.