THE ELEPHANT in the room in the struggle to avoid a disastrous government shutdown is that there are, in fact, two elephants in the room: Republican congressional leaders, who are seeking meaningful concessions from President Obama, and the Republican Tea Party wing that is trying to use the budget to roll back government.
No one disputes this state of affairs, least of all the GOP Tea Party caucus, and it has become an intolerable stumbling block: House Speaker John Boehner and other mainstream conservatives should cut their own deal with Democrats and spare the country a painful and embarrassing shutdown, perhaps as soon as this weekend.
It may be tempting for Republicans to maintain solidarity and cause a shutdown. Such a dramatic move would prove that the freshmen elected in 2010 are serious about transforming government, while also stirring up some plague-on-both-houses anger toward Washington. The right wing of the GOP, with its anti-government agenda, benefits the most when voters feel the capital is “broken.’’
Still, it’s hard to see how a DC implosion would be a win for House Republicans. It’s clear that they’re the holdouts — the ones proudly refusing to bend — even though they are only one-third of the constitutional law-making process. In 1995, when Republicans last attempted this gambit, it was widely perceived as an inappropriate power grab, even though they then controlled both houses of Congress. Voters, it turned out, really believed in bipartisanship, and felt that the president was being bypassed.
And while voters chose a Republican majority in the House last November, it’s not at all clear that they wanted a historic rollback of government. Many voters said their goal was balance and moderation. That’s what they would get in a deal among Boehner, Obama, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But the Tea Party wing has instead chosen to chew up valuable time with assaults on tiny line items that offend their anti-government ideology — from birth control to PBS programs to AmeriCorps volunteering.
Taken together, these items don’t amount to a single bean, let alone a hill of beans, in a budget of which 88 percent is devoted to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and defense. It’s blatantly false advertising to suggest that discretionary items like Planned Parenthood have anything more than a token bearing on the deficit.
There’s no more time for such foolishness. The way to solve the deficit is to make responsible, common-sense cuts to discretionary programs — the 12 percent of the budget being fought over right now — in the same spirit as a family might respond to a downturn by trimming their lifestyle. Then, seek a bipartisan agreement on a package of benefit adjustments and tax increases to bolster Social Security and Medicare, while also establishing a commission to identify Pentagon waste.
All who are serious about the federal deficit should embrace this approach. It’s the one that Obama and congressional leaders appear to be lurching toward. But there’s one elephant that won’t follow the herd. It’s time that Republican Party leaders cut the Tea Party adrift, and let it follow its own path into the wilderness.