How House Conservatives Can Get Their Groove Back

They should unite to demand a really strong debt cap.

The Freedom Caucus is at a crossroads. The group of about 40 conservative and libertarian House members has had a surprisingly consequential first year, forcing Speaker John Boehner into early retirement and playing kingmaker in the resulting succession scramble.

But when it comes to actually achieving conservative policy wins, the group, founded a year ago and chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, has yet to fulfill its potential. In 2015 House Republican leaders perfected the art of treating conservative priorities as hot potatoes to be dropped and of relegating conservatives to the sidelines by negotiating bipartisan deals directly with Democrats. The Freedom Caucus has been effectively checked by a bipartisan governing coalition whose prime directive is “No Shutdowns.” And because all the “must pass” bills have been deliberately taken off the table by Boehner (and his successor, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin) until after the 2016 elections, the caucus now risks sliding into irrelevance.

On top of all this, right-leaning personalities like Glenn Beck and Laura Ingraham have attacked the caucus for having “betrayed the cause” by allowing the elevation of Ryan – “Boehner 2.0” – without getting anything in return.

What’s a poor Freedom Caucus member to do?

Although the GOP’s agenda will end up being dictated by its eventual presidential nominee, House conservatives can and should try to influence that agenda. To do so, they will need to unite and prioritize: Learn to vote as a bloc and speak with one voice on a few important issues, rather than dissipating all their energy on numerous futile attempts to defund or reverse every “Obama outrage du jour.”

In addition to waging a few important defunding battles, knowing they’ll fail, they should promote one big idea that voters can understand and get excited about.

What idea should they focus on? There are numerous candidates, of course: job creation, economic recovery, national security, the war against the Islamic State group, the Iran nuclear deal, Syrian refugees, immigration, abortion, marriage, gun control, Obamacare – the list is endless.

I suspect conservatives will be drawn primarily to two issues: pro-growth tax cuts and meaningful spending restraint. Both are appealing, but in the current, deficit-drenched environment, the latter will probably strike voters as more responsible.

Balancing the budget is a “political trifecta”: It truly unites conservatives of all stripes; it has majority public support; and it puts progressives on the defensive. Of course, the left will fight it, and the bipartisan establishment will try to thwart it through cynical game-playing. But incumbents will feel enormous pressure to pay it lip service in an election year. Why not call their bluff?

So far, every attempt to pass a balanced budget amendment has failed, always by a narrow margin. But the political landscape is changing. Since the tea party resurgence of 2009, the ranks of congressional Republicans have been invigorated with dozens of new members who are less prone to cynical game-playing.

As a strategic matter, the only way conservatives can overthrow the big-government coalition is to eliminate the source of that coalition’s power: Its ability to keep total spending and debt going up indefinitely. And the only way to do that is to place effective caps on spending and debt. And the only way to do that is with a tightly worded constitutional amendment.

Statutory limits won’t work. Congress won’t restrain itself. The spending caps of the Budget Control Act of 2011 have been effectively waived or postponed every year since the law’s enactment. Even the Republican 10-year balanced budget plan, which is not even a year old, has already been set aside to facilitate a $112 billion election-year spending spree. Our leaders want fiscal chastity, but not yet.

The hard fact is incumbents will continue to spend beyond our means until we change their incentives with a constitutional amendment they can’t evade. To be effective, the amendment needs to be loophole-free and should include these four key features:

  1. A strong spending cap: Permit no federal spending beyond current receipts, except for amounts borrowed in strict conformity with the amendment.
  2. A strong debt cap: Set a specific dollar limit on total debt, above which Congress may only borrow with the approval of a majority of the state legislatures, or alternatively a supermajority of both houses of Congress.
  3. A strong enforcement mechanism: Enforce the caps with mandatory presidential sequesters and impoundments.
  4. Strong penalties: Punish any unauthorized breach of the caps with credible, automatic penalties. For example, make all sitting members of Congress personally financially liable for the unauthorized interest costs and terminate their eligibility for re-election.

Tough medicine? Sure. But it’s the kind of serious structural reform America needs and the kind that voters can understand and get excited about.

How can the House Freedom Caucus remain relevant? By focusing on securing an effective, enforceable balanced budget amendment.

Dean Clancy, a former senior official in the White House and Congress, writes on U.S. budget and constitutional issues. Follow him at DeanClancy.com or on Twitter @DeanClancy.


[Originally published at USNews.com, January 16, 2016. @USNewsOpinion. Reposted at DeanClancy.com.]

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