By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Welcome to the Republicans who take over the House of Representatives this week. Since it is a new year, let us be optimistic about what this development means for our nation.
There is already a standard line of advice to Speaker-to-be John Boehner and his colleagues that goes like this: Democrats overreached in the last Congress by doing too much and ignoring “the center.” Republicans should be careful not to make the same mistake, lest they lose their majority too.
This counsel is wrong, partly because the premise is faulty. Democrats did not overreach in the last Congress. On the contrary, they compromised regularly. Compromise made the health care bill far more complicated than it had to be and the original stimulus bill too small. Democrats would have been better off getting more done more quickly, and more coherently.
And majorities are elected to govern according to their best lights. Like it or not, Republicans won the House in last year’s election. They can be expected to do what they said they would do. And, yes, they have the advantage of knowing that if they pass truly outlandish stuff to satisfy their base, most of it will be blocked by the Senate or President Obama.
Republican House leaders are going in for a lot of symbolism, and why not? Symbols matter in politics.
Thus the new majority will open the next Congress with a full reading of the Constitution and establish a rule requiring that every new bill contain a statement citing the constitutional authority behind it.
My first response was to scoff at this obvious sop to the tea party movement. One can imagine that the rule’s primary practical result will be the creation of a small new House bureaucracy responsible for churning out constitutional justifications for whatever gets introduced.
But on reflection, I offer the Republicans two cheers for their fealty to their professed ideals. We badly need a full-scale debate over what the Constitution is, means and allows—and how Americans have argued about these questions since the beginning of the republic. This provision should be the springboard for a discussion all of us should join.
From its inception, the tea party movement has treated the nation’s great founding document not as the collection of shrewd political compromises that it is, but as the equivalent of sacred scripture.
Yet as Gordon Wood, the widely admired historian of the Revolutionary era has noted, we “can recognize the extraordinary character of the Founding Fathers while also knowing that those 18th-century political leaders were not outside history. ... They were as enmeshed in historical circumstances as we are, they had no special divine insight into politics, and their thinking was certainly not free of passion, ignorance and foolishness.”
An examination of the Constitution that views it as something other than the books of Genesis or Leviticus would be good for the country.
As for the House Republicans’ plan to gut pay-as-you-go budget rules by not requiring offsets for tax cuts, it’s ridiculous by the ordinary rules of mathematics. Tax cuts add to the deficit no less than spending increases do.
But here again, the Republicans’ approach might bring a certain clarity to our muddled fiscal debates. It could force them to show—more quickly than their pollsters might like—how much they would have to eviscerate government to cover the costs of their tax-cut obsession.
One other thing: When Democrats held the majority, their control depended in part on holding moderate-to-conservative districts. This created a running story line about the disaffection of vulnerable Democrats with various liberal policies.
The new Republican House majority, by contrast, depends on holding moderate-to-liberal districts. As Shane D’Aprile usefully reported last week on The Hill’s Ballot Box blog, 31 of the newly elected Republican House members represent districts that Obama carried in 2008, bringing to 62 the number of House Republicans hailing from Obama districts.
Reapportionment may change this a bit, and there is no guarantee that Obama will carry all those districts in 2012. Still, a large number of GOP House members will have to look at least occasionally over their left shoulders. How the House leadership accommodates this brute political fact will be one of the best stories of the next two years.
So let’s celebrate. It can only be good for democratic deliberation if holding the majority requires House Republicans to show their policy and philosophical cards. They’ll legislate. You’ll decide.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
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