In his first inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan cemented his place in the cliché hall of fame with his remark that, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Sure, the conventional conservative wisdom holds that the government that does least does best. By that metric, the 113th Congress is on fire.
This year will be no different. Beyond a resolution to the fiscal crisis flavor of the month, no major policies will be passed. But voters, particularly those concerned about the future of their political parties should pay as much — if not more — attention to this second session of the 113th Congress than they did the last one. The refiguring of the respective party identities ahead of the midterm election will serve as a barometer for the 2016 presidential election and will set the tone for the last two years of the Obama presidency.
The first two weeks of the New Year surely disappointed political optimists who thought 2014 would bring landmark legislation like comprehensive immigration reform and a raise in the minimum wage. In addition, the nation’s congressmen voted to block extending unemployment benefits for over one million Americans. The negotiations were derailed by the ghost of the Affordable Care Act when Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) asserted that dismantling it would be a more effective economic stimulus than unemployment benefits (because if government assistance to poor people isn’t economic stimulus, what is it good for after all?).
The majority of Congress might be millionaires, but the majority of Americans are not.
Not to be outdone, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) asserted that Democrats were using the debate over jobless benefits as a campaign issue. “In other words, instead of working on reforms that would actually help people overcome the challenges so many of them face in this economy, Democrats plan to exploit these folks for political gain,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.
Sadly, the unemployment debate will soon give way to the most recent impending fiscal calamity, an issue that voters have become so desensitized to that a government shutting down or hitting the borrowing ceiling is not alarming. Though a budget agreement came as an early Christmas present, lawmakers were set to vote on the actual spending bill Wednesday and agree to raise the federal borrowing limit by mid-March.
Ultimately, both parties have an identity crisis to resolve, and the post-fiscal and pre-midterm legislative session will be the stage upon which that resolution unfolds, instead of the stage upon which meaningful policies are passed.
For the Democrats, convincing the nation to forget the Affordable Care Act tops the list. The GOP already intends to make the 2014 midterm elections a referendum on the signature law, the success of which will depend on both the continued progress of the rollout and the ability of the Democrats to refocus the election on something else.
The party as a whole has settled on income inequality as the means to achieve that end, justifying it with the recently-celebrated 50th anniversary of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” speech that marked the beginning of the great society and one of the largest expansions of government aid in our nation’s history. The Democrats’ pick is a good one: Policies like raising the minimum wage not only have huge appeal with voters, but are difficult to counter in the wake of the 2008 recession and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The Republican leadership, in its opposition to the new great society project being undertaken by Democrats, must make a decisive choice between the Sen. Ted Cruz’s and Gov. Chris Christie’s if Christie could stop creating traffic jams for his political rivals.
The statements and actions of the Republicans in Washington towards Christie will determine whether or not this is true. Today’s GOP has pushed itself to the brink of irrelevancy; while they would still come down on Reagan’s side in their agreement that a small government is a good one, that’s about all that can be said for their resemblance to the favorite conservative of the day. If Reagan could fight with Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil and still manage to be three times as productive as the 113th, then the GOP can surely put some distance between itself and folks like Rand Paul. If Reagan saw them filibustering and reading children’s books on the floor of Congress, he would roll over in his grave.
Nathaniel Haas is a sophomore majoring in political science and economics. His column “State of the Union” runs Thursdays.