Listening to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew speak to the Economic Club of Washington on Sept. 17 brought to mind how little many of the more conservative Republicans in the House really know about President Reagan's eight years in office, how he operated, and, for that matter, why and how he succeeded. In other words, few of them get how the town worked during Reagan's tenure, as opposed to today, when it only barely does.
In his speech and subsequent discussion with David Rubenstein—the president of the Economic Club and the cofounder and cochief executive officer of the Carlyle Group, a global private-equity firm—Lew pointed out that if the "Hastert Rule" had been observed when Democrats controlled the House during the Reagan administration, much of the legislation that Reagan is remembered for would not have passed. (Under the Hastert Rule, named for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican, the majority party in the House does not act on bills unless the measures have the support of a majority of the majority party's members.)
There were plenty of Reagan-backed measures that Speakers Tip O'Neill and Jim Wright opposed, but these House leaders did not stand in the way of their being taken up for consideration. Take, for example, the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, better known as the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, and the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1981, also known as the Gramm-Latta Act, which included the Kemp-Roth tax cuts. Both of these measures reached the floor and passed the House without a majority of the chamber's majority, the Democrats. Is a rule that would have effectively precluded the passage of legislation that conservatives cite as pillars of Reagan's domestic agenda really something they want to support?
The fact is, only 33 members of the 433 current members of the House (two seats are vacant) served for as much as a day while Reagan was president between 1981 and 1989. Of these members, only 14 are Republicans. And only 25 members, including 12 Republicans, served a full session of Congress while Reagan was in office. To put it differently, any member who came to the House after Reps. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Fred Upton, R-Mich., did not serve a full Congress with Reagan.
Those who pay lip service to Reagan without really understanding what happened during those years should read Chris Matthews's book, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, coming out Oct. 1. While most conservatives probably find the liberal Matthews a bit difficult to take on his Hardball show on MSNBC, when he is writing history, he does so very objectively. (His 1996 book, Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America, was fascinating and could not have been fairer to both men.)
It's clear that perhaps 50 to 100 House Republicans see President Obama and Democrats as inherently wrong, almost evil; and thus they view compromising as essentially becoming coconspirators with evil. Giving in, even just a little bit, is plain wrong, this thinking goes. While this point of view is fine for the coffee shop or Rotary Club back home, it is anathema to the legislative process, where compromise is essential to making government work. Compromise is part of democracy.
On some issues, digging in your heels doesn't cause a lot of harm, but on others, it is downright dangerous. Lew cited former Reagan Treasury Secretary James Baker III as saying, "A failure to pay what is already due will cause certain and serious harm to our credit, financial markets, and our citizens," noting that Reagan raised the debt limit 17 times during his eight years in office. No one would question Reagan's conservative credentials, but he knew the difference between rhetoric and reality, between what you would like to see and what can happen in a democracy, where compromise is an essential ingredient.
So that leads us to the situation we are in today, with House Republicans threatening to shut down the government on Oct. 1 and refusing to raise the debt limit later in the fall if Obama and the Democrats don't agree to scale back the 2010 health care reform law—a measure that has survived a Supreme Court challenge and multiple attempts by congressional Republicans to repeal it. Mindful of the damage that past budget confrontations have done to the Republican Party, House GOP leaders would like to avoid a government shutdown or a default, but the zealous members of their caucus are pushing them into a more confrontational posture.
Republicans eager for a fight need to realize that some things are not to be trifled with. A nation that does not pay its bills and fails to meet its obligations for spending is hardly following a conservative approach to fiscal policy.