In June of this year, Republican extremists took the United States to the brink of a catastrophic default by refusing to raise the federal debt limit until the last moment. They relented only when Congress passed the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which set caps on discretionary spending for the next two years. And now, after only three months, they are refusing to pass a new federal budget, which is why we face the prospect of a shutdown of the United States government at the end of this month.
In short, their words and their vote meant nothing.
The architects of this insanity are predominantly members of the so-called Freedom Caucus, a group of radical right-wing Republicans who see themselves as patriots entitled to threaten their own country’s credit and shut down the government in the name of reducing spending. They include Representatives Bob Good of Virginia, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Matt Rosendale of Montana, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Dan Bishop of North Carolina, and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, among others, and the one salient argument they have is that federal spending is too high relative to our tax revenue.
After that, they have nothing. In other words, they have no specific proposals regarding spending cuts or tax reform they want Congress to debate. As House Speaker Kevin McCarthy put it when describing their refusal to even debate a recent stopgap defense spending proposal, “This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down.”
In a smoothly functioning Congress, the kind we used to have when we voted more intelligently and were less polarized politically, a small group of hardliners would not matter. The Speaker of the House would simply make sure they were outvoted, either by his/her own party, or as the result of a compromise with the other party. In this case, Speaker McCarthy might rally the centrists in his party, and garner enough support from Democrats with a few compromises that he could get a budget passed. Unfortunately, he is a weak leader trapped by the slim Republican majority in the House and the narrow majority of votes he received within his own party when he was elected Speaker. If he angers the radicals, he faces the prospect of being voted out of his leadership role, which means he cannot compromise with the Democrats at all, cannot get enough votes within his own party to pass legislation, and has chosen to endure a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of the radicals, who voted down two procedural compromises in the last week alone. They also forced McCarthy to launch a pointless impeachment inquiry into President Biden’s alleged connections to business dealings involving his son Hunter despite a complete lack of evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of the president.
There are few if any historical parallels for this sort of behavior. The “Wrecking Ball Caucus,” as it is known to many in Congress, is opposed by Democrats and most Republicans in Congress, and members do not care in the least. They hail from predominantly one-party districts where their re-election is virtually guaranteed and where the residents apparently largely support the politics of rage over achievement. And their rage is blind, steering the Freedom Caucus toward ideas that no Republican would have supported 20 years ago. They are eager to oust their own speaker if he refuses to bow to them, eager to block legislation written by members of their own party, eager to handcuff the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice despite the traditional Republican support for law enforcement, and eager to cut off support for Ukraine even though it is a democracy battling against an autocratic enemy.
Ronald Reagan would have had nothing to do with these people.
Unfortunately, no one has yet figured out a way to deal with them. As Republican Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho put it, “The problem is we are being dragged around by twenty people when 200 of us are in agreement.” The challenge is magnified because the Freedom Caucus seems not to want anything reasonable. They talk of balancing the budget but offer no specifics other than that they want cuts in discretionary spending. The idea is absurd. Most federal spending falls under entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, etc.), defense, Veterans Administration benefits, and other programs no member of Congress or voter would cut. That leaves 25 percent that’s truly discretionary, and it includes everything from education to cancer research to training for air traffic controllers. It would have to be cut 85 percent over 10 years to even get us close to a balanced budget, and it would negatively impact millions of Americans.
To be sure, we need to address our addiction to ludicrously low taxes and high levels of spending. Federal revenue is slipping. Interest rates have risen, which in turn has doubled the annual deficit to $2 trillion this year alone. That constitutes 7.4 percent of GDP, which is an alarmingly high number – higher than any year in American history when no emergency (like a major war) was taking place. Our overall deficit is 120 percent of GDP, and our declining birth rate means pensioners are multiplying relative to workers. Social Security will be broke within 10 years, requiring a 23-25 percent reduction in benefits. And so on.
But solving those very real challenges requires sober, intelligent, reasonable leadership. It requires compromise. And none of those virtues can be found in the Wrecking Ball Caucus. Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska described them this way: “Some of these folks would vote against the Bible because there’s not enough Jesus in it.”
Those are not the kind of people we need to lead our country. We should keep that in mind when we vote, and when we assign blame for any government shutdowns.
Lance Janda holds a PhD in History from the University of Oklahoma and has more than 30 years of experience in higher education. He is the author of “Stronger Than Custom: West Point and the Admission of Women”, among other works.