In The Conversation, David Brooks and Gail Collins talk between columns every Wednesday.
Gail Collins: David, the House Republicans are going off for their annual retreat this week. As a sign of my good intentions, I am not going to make any jokes involving Custer and Little Bighorn.
I do want to know where you think they’ll be headed once they return from their days of contemplation. Backward? Forward? Off the political cliff?
David Brooks: I don’t think they know. There are a bunch of Republicans who think we’re headed toward a fiscal catastrophe (they’re right), that the problem is mostly spending (right again) and that therefore they should stop the normal Washington shenanigans and provoke a budget confrontation (wrong).
Gail: When it comes to political games, this debt ceiling thing is like playing chicken on the railroad tracks. While wearing snowshoes.
David: The debt ceiling is one of those issues that invite maximum hypocrisy on both sides. As you know, Barack Obama and Joe Biden voted against raising the debt ceiling in 2006 when Bush was president on the grounds that our $248 billion annual deficit was ruinously high. Obama gave some very persuasive speeches on this, as Byron York is reporting in The Washington Examiner.
Now Democrats hold the White House so Republicans are playing that game. The first thing that’s different is that Republicans are just a lot more strident about provoking a showdown. Second, it’s interesting how anti-political they are. Arguments from pollsters and their leadership that this will end up hurting their party have no effect, and maybe even a negative effect.
We say we want people who ignore the polls and are willing to take a stand on principle. Here it is.
Gail: If we’re talking about principled but politically suicidal leaps, I can fantasize one that’s a lot more positive: At the end of the retreat, John Boehner comes out and says that the Republican House members have decided to raise the debt ceiling, with no side demands, because everybody knows that if you borrow money, you have to pay it back.
I’m shocked there’s any question about that. This is the party that keeps saying government is just like a family and families can’t spend more than their income. I’m betting the public also believes that if a family borrows money, it’s morally obligated to pay it back. Even if the family now regrets the purchase of a 60-inch flat screen TV.
David: Here’s the thing. The last time the Republicans threatened a big debt ceiling fight, it worked. They got at least a little spending restraint.
Gail: And the president got a good lesson in not negotiating on the debt ceiling.
David: Here’s the other thing: A few weeks ago, the White House was telling everyone that there was no way they were going to agree to a fiscal cliff deal unless it took the debt ceiling fight off the table. Well, they folded on that too.
It’s hard for those of us who worry about the solvency of the government to argue against success.
Gail: I don’t disagree that the president folded on both occasions. Which is why I’m glad he doesn’t seem tempted now.
David: I just wish the president would actually submit more than one budget on time. I wish the Senate would actually pass a budget (it hasn’t in years). That way we could get back to some normal constitutional budget procedure.
Gail: Here’s what I wish: At the end of the retreat — you’ll note that I have a lot of fantasies about this particular occasion — Boehner comes out and says that this year, the House is going to vote on the legislation that comes before it, and let the majority rule.
As you know, Boehner’s current rule is that bills only come to a vote when a majority of Republicans support them. He had to abandon it during the fiscal cliff crisis and then again on Tuesday for Sandy relief. But he’s given no indication that he’ll drop the rule during the normal course of business.
This so-called majority of the majority rule is why the House never took up the Senate bill to keep the Postal Service out of insolvency last year. It’s why Boehner couldn’t bring up a farm reform bill that came out of his own Republican-dominated Agriculture Committee.
So, break the stalemate. Let bills come up as they arrive from committees and from the Senate. Count the votes. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
David: As I say, the budget is the single biggest piece of legislation Congress entertains. If the Senate can’t pass one of those it’s hard for me to exclusively blame the House for being dysfunctional. At least the House has passed a budget.
Gail: The House doesn’t have the filibuster. But obviously I’m not going to argue that the Senate majority is blameless. Plenty of dysfunction to go around.
David: That said, I do agree that this majority of the majority business is stupid. It means you can never have unorthodox coalitions around anything. The habits of bipartisanship on anything get lost.
Gail: The Republicans have certainly been getting a lot of bad press lately. Tell me, do you agree with Colin Powell that there’s a “dark vein of intolerance” in the party now?
David: Not really. I’ll let you in on a little secret. I go to a lot of all-Republican gatherings and a lot of all-Democratic gatherings. I hear more intolerance from the all-Democrats. They are more contemptuous of people unlike them. Or, to be more precise, they are more uncomprehending about the fact that somebody could actually disagree with them.
Gail: The thing that freaks me out most is the regional divide we’re seeing. The Republicans get all their power from the former Confederate states and what I think of as the Empty Places – mainly the Great Plains. The Democrats get theirs from the two coasts and the industrial middle.
I appreciate the irritation the House Republicans felt at the big spending in the post-Sandy storm relief package, but that bill would never, ever have been stalled if the storm had flattened Montana or South Carolina.
David: Really? I seem to recall Bush going down late to New Orleans post-Katrina and giving a speech about how to help the storm-ravaged areas, including, notably, a lot of places like Mississippi. The House Republicans totally balked at those ideas, too. I’m sure the fact that Sandy hit the Northeast didn’t help, but the aversion to spending is reasonably pervasive, I’d say. Not always thought through, but pervasive.
Gail: Well, the only positive note I can end on when it comes to the House Republicans is this: they really do make the House Democrats look good. I hope they have a good retreat. Do you think there will be yoga?
David: Pilates. They need to work on their cores.