So we’ve been watching Netflix’s House of Cards. I’ve known members of the House and Senate in both parties over last 40 years, and–in reality–most members are too busy meeting with constituents and raising money to plot murder and blackmail. And their spouses do not encourage affairs with journalists.
Sadly, one aspect of the show is realistic. In Season 2, episode 3, Frank helps pass an “entitlement reform” that raises the eligibility age for some undefined benefit. Democrats win politically because a Tea Party favorite, Senator Curtis Haas, fears that he will lose part of his outsider appeal by being part of a solution.
One aspect of that drama played out in “real life” over the last five months. The House passed a budget resolution that cut many categories of federal spending to levels less than those favored by the Senate (and, as it turns out, many House Republicans). Republicans had excellent bargaining power, because the Budget Control Act of 2011–negotiated by President Obama–capped spending at the House level. It would take a majority vote of both houses of Congress to amend that ceiling.
Enter from stage right Ted Cruz. People already knew that Republicans in Congress opposed the Affordable Care Act, but Cruz wanted everyone to know that he opposed it the most, or something like that. So he sought to filibuster legislation that would allow the federal government to function until . . . well, Congress repealed it or he grabbed more headlines. The gambit raised some public doubts about whether the GOP knew how to govern.
That put congressional GOP leaders on the defensive, and they agreed to raise spending to levels $100 billion more during the next two fiscal years than would be permitted by federal law. And they increased the debt ceiling to cover both that spending and the spending in their earlier budget resolution. What’s more, Cruz forced fellow Senate Republicans to gather ten more votes to raise the ceiling, an action that the conservative Wall Street Journal branded as “kamikaze.”
Many of us admire politicians who stand on principle, even when we don’t agree with them. In America’s Fiscal Constitution I chronicle the tale of many leaders in both parties who defended the principle of balanced budgets. If Mr. Cruz or others want to defend fiscal discipline, there is a time-tested way to do so: Release a plan that shows exactly how much you would spend next year on every federal function, and not a penny more than estimated tax revenue, and then begin lining up support.