Published: July 17, 2011
Twenty-four. That's the number of bills President Obama has signed into law since the swearing in of the 112th Congress this January. That's about a quarter of the amount that the president signed during the same period last year.
Certainly, productivity slips when Congress is split, but the trickle of bills passed this year suggests a new kind of logjam.
What may make this period more challenging — and not just for Obama, but even for some congressional Republicans — is a group within the party that sees compromise as a four-letter word.
They are the 83 freshmen Republicans, most of whom are aligned with the Tea Party. One of them, Tom Graves of Georgia, spoke this week about why he won't vote to raise the debt limit.
"Let's put government in a box and shrink the box over five years," he said. "This is no time to compromise. We've got to hold firm right now. We have $14 trillion in debt. We cannot continue to compromise America's future."
Obama has proposed $4 trillion in spending cuts paired with tax and fee increases. Congressional Republicans have balked at the offer. Conservative columnist David Brooks called accepting a compromise "the mother of all no-brainers."
But many in the Republican Party aren't in a mood to compromise. Historian Sean Wilentz suggests some reasons for the Republican position.
"There is a view that anything a Democrat says, Republicans will automatically oppose," Wilentz says. "So if it's a Republican idea, but coming out of President Obama's mouth, it has to be opposed."
But Wilentz also sees longer-term trends at play.
"The Republican Party itself is continuing to evolve, and it continues to move further and further to the right," Wilentz says. "This is a dynamic that goes back 20 years."
Wilentz says over that time, "Republicans have gone back to certain ideas that were out there in the Reagan era — supply-side economics and so forth — and turned them into such dogma that they're willing to see the United States government go bankrupt."
The View from the Middle
Republican Mike Castle has witnessed this seismic shift firsthand. Castle was governor of Delaware from 1985 to 1993, and served as the state's House representative from 1993 to 2011. He was a popular moderate in the state at large and was the odds-on favorite when he entered Delaware's senate race in 2010.
He never made it out of the primary, losing to Tea Party insurgent Christine O'Donnell.
When asked by weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz about changes within the House Republican caucus, Castle noted, "There was a great reduction in moderate Republicans, even in the time when I was there."
Castle says he feels that the rank decimation of moderates in the House has caused polarization and made compromise a dirty word.
"This makes it very difficult to achieve the greater good as far as the public is concerned," Castle says.
Castle is also concerned how the conservative ferment within the party will affect electoral prospects. He says that Tea Party supporters "seem to be happy in taking out individuals who are more moderate — such as me — and calling us 'Republicans in name only.'"
Castle adds, "I'm not sure they even care what happens at the end in terms of who gets elected."
Leadership Difficulties: No Small Potatoes
H. Dennis Hastert was speaker of the House from 1999 to 2007. He sees the polarization of the political process as a consequence of campaign finance reform.
"It took [money] out of the parties and it pushed the money into the far wings," Hastert says. "Those are the people now that have the money that help people get elected to Congress."
Hastert also knows the difficulties facing current Speaker John Boehner as he negotiates a deal to raise the U.S. debt ceiling.
"If you're a leader like John Boehner is, you lead basically 435 people and they want input into the process, too," Hastert says. "You need every one of those votes — especially the votes in your party — in order to get something done."
Hastert compares the reality of making laws to eating potatoes.
"You can't eat a potato in your mouth at one time. That's why they make potato chips and french fries — you take a bite at a time," Hastert says.
Instead of going for a big deal as advocated by Obama, Hastert suggests breaking legislation into smaller pieces so congressmen can understand what's in the deal before it passes. Hastert would also like to see a deal proceed through Congress rather than the closed-door negotiations going on now.
"Sometimes, when you're forced to go outside regular order and you take a shortcut, you cut [House] members out of that process," Hastert says. "Members need to be involved."
Struggle In The Shadows
The closed-door meetings between the president and congressional leaders have suggested rifts within the Republican leadership. A proposed deal between Obama and Boehner was allegedly axed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Some people accuse Cantor of stalling the talks for his own political gain. Reporter Jonathan Allen of Politico thinks that's too much of a stretch, but says Cantor is ambitious.
"Cantor came to the Congress in 2001 and swiftly moved up the Republican leadership ranks," Allen tells Raz. "I don't think there's any doubt that he wants to be speaker of the House at some point, or something above that."
So how does that ambition vibe with Boehner?
"I think that Boehner probably likes [Cantor] enough," Allen says. "But I doubt that he trusts him farther than he can throw him."
Allen says this tradition of leadership struggle in Republican Party goes back to Gerald Ford. Ford and supporters like Donald Rumsfeld rewrote conference rules to help Charles Halleck oust his predecessor as speaker. Ford then used those same rules to oust Halleck.
While Allen isn't sure that Cantor will follow in Ford's footsteps, he says Cantor has done a good job of positioning himself as the unofficial spokesman for the strong conservative wing of the party.
If the Republican Party continues its historical shift to the right, he says, Cantor's influence will continue to rise. [Copyright 2013 NPR]
GUY RAZ, host: From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
Since January of this year, when Republicans took over the House, Congress has passed just 24 bills, and a third of them have been for things like naming buildings. But by this time last year, 98 bills were sent to the president, four times as many as this year.
And historian Tom Wilentz, who teaches at Princeton, says it reminds him of one other period in congressional history.
TOM WILENTZ: It was a peculiar situation, where President Harry Truman called a special session of Congress.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
President HARRY TRUMAN: I call a special session of Congress, November 1947 - November 17, 1947. And I set out a 10-point program for the welfare and benefit of this country, among other things standby price control. I got nothing. Congress has still done nothing.
WILENTZ: (Unintelligible) Truman to run for the presidency and win against all odds by lambasting the do nothing Republican Congress.
RAZ: Now the dynamic may be different today, but the tension between the White House and the House of Representatives is similar. But what may make this period even more challenging, not just for President Obama, but even for some congressional Republicans, is a group within the party that sees compromise as a four-letter word. They are the 83 freshmen Republicans, the so-called Tea Party members.
Here's one of them, Tom Graves of Georgia speaking this past week about why he won't vote to raise the debt limit.
Representative TOM GRAVES: Let's put government in a box and shrink the box over five years. This is no time to compromise. We've got to hold firm right now. We have $14 trillion in debt. We cannot continue to compromise America's future.
RAZ: Our cover story today: how compromise is becoming another word for sellout, among many, in the Republican Party.
Now it seemed for a brief moment last weekend that President Obama and the Republican House Speaker John Boehner were close to making a deal over how to raise the debt limit. Right now, the government can't run a debt higher than $14.3 trillion without Congress' approval. And without that approval, the U.S. government could soon go into default. That deal fell apart because of opposition among rank-and-file Republicans.
And former House Speaker Dennis Hastert says a big reason it did was because so many House Republicans felt they weren't being consulted.
DENNIS HASTERT: They want inputted to the process too. So the problem is, if you carry on these high-level negotiations, you have a lot of members who really feel that they're being shut out of the process.
RAZ: Right now, the White House is considering an alternative plan presented by Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate. He wants Republicans to pass a bill opposing an increase in the debt ceiling. But the bill would be written in such a way to allow the president to veto it and raise the debt ceiling anyway. That would allow Republicans to vote against it and prevent default. It's not pretty, but it's politics, and it allows Republicans to avoid a more complicated compromise.
And it's the kind of thing that rankles Mike Castle. He's a Republican who was a governor and a congressman from Delaware. Last year, he was defeated in the primary by a Tea Party Republican who tarred him with the epithet compromiser.
MIKE CASTLE: I don't think there's any question that the word compromise or the act of compromising has become a strong negative with certain elements of the Republican Party. Perhaps most certainly those embodied by the different tenets of the Tea Party. This makes it very difficult to achieve the greater good as far as the public is concerned.
There are times when compromise is essential if we're going to be able to move forward with governmental solutions. And I think we're facing one of those right now as we deal with the debt ceiling issue, and in my judgment, a potential significant crisis from an economic point of view in this country on August 2nd.
RAZ: Mike Castle, do you believe that the Tea Party and the Tea Party freshmen, about 83 of them in the House of Representatives, is it having a negative effect on the Republicans in Congress right now?
CASTLE: Clearly, there's been a division here. And it's not just those freshmen who are elected; there are other members of the House of Representatives who were there before who pledged to follow the same route, if you will. And that clearly is why the term compromise and the actual act of compromising has become a negative as far as Republicans are concerned. It's the reason that they're having trouble sitting down and trying to work out a final solution here.
RAZ: Do you think that if a deal is not struck, the public will blame the Republicans?
CASTLE: Yeah, I think the Republicans are going to be blamed. Republicans are going to blame Democrats too. But the bottom line is that, you know, they believe Republicans have been too recalcitrant, that's going to be a threat. And I would believe that the Republican leadership who's been through this before understands that. And that's one reason that they would probably like to work out a solution, but they have the internal problems that we've just discussed.
RAZ: Let me ask you this question. You were considered to be a moderate Republican. Do you recognize the congressional Republican caucus as it operates now?
CASTLE: You know, it is somewhat different than it was when I arrived, when there are a number of moderates. On the other hand, there was a great reduction in moderate Republicans even the time that I was there. By the time I left, you know, there were many few of us than there were, you know, 18 years ago when I started. So you have much more polarized views of the two political parties going on in the House of Representatives at this point.
RAZ: David Brooks, a conservative columnist, wrote a column recently, I'm sure you read it, where he writes that, "The Republican Party," and I'm quoting him, "may no longer be a normal party." It's a party infected, he writes, by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical governing alternative. Do you think there is something to what he wrote?
CASTLE: Yeah, I think there is something to what he wrote. I worry about the absolute positions that the Tea Party takes. I mean, I'm a living example of the effect of the Tea Party. I had a substantial lead in the polls in Delaware and, you know, a small element came together and took me out in the primary and nominated an individual who, unfortunately, just never really had a shot as a Republican getting elected in the state that tends not to be that Republican.
And, you know, they seem to be perfectly happy in taking out individuals who are more moderate such as me and calling us Republicans in name only. And I'm not sure they even really care what happens at the end in terms of who gets elected.
RAZ: That's former Republican congressman and governor, Mike Castle of Delaware. Governor Castle, thank you so much.
CASTLE: Thank you very much.
RAZ: Jonathan Allen is a reporter who covers Congress for Politico, and he says it's not the Tea Party that's leading the Republicans in Congress today.
JONATHAN ALLEN: The Tea Party, in a way, sometimes gets a little too much credit for their influence in the freshman class. Sure, they're a little harder core. But the freshmen are actually pretty reflective of the Republican conference as a whole. Some of them may be a little bit more aggressive in their beliefs. But really, when you're talking about not wanting to raise taxes, things like that, wanting to cut spending, they really reflect the values of this House Republican majority.
RAZ: So now you believe that the vast majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives don't like to compromise, don't want to compromise on most things?
ALLEN: I think there's a handful of things on which they are unwilling to compromise, certainly on whether to raise the rates of taxation on individuals or corporation. They are unwilling to compromise when it comes to spending in a lot of ways. They'll draw a bottom line.
RAZ: Jonathan Allen, you spend a lot of time on The Hill, you know a lot of people. Give me the back story here, because we're hearing that the Speaker John Boehner spend a lot of time with the president. They were hashing out a deal. They were - it looked like something was going to happen and then, bam. It was popped like a balloon, and people are saying the man who did it was Eric Cantor, the majority leader.
ALLEN: Well, the details of what was being talked about between Speaker Boehner and Barack Obama were leaked before those talks broke down. And essentially, there was information out there that Boehner was talking taxes with the president. That's what undid it. The degree to which the majority leader had any part in that, I don't know. But I will say this: he wouldn't need to. There's enough of a resistance to that approach from enough places in the Republican Party that he wouldn't need to undercut Boehner. Boehner was undercut by walking too far out from his flock.
RAZ: Tell me about Eric Cantor. Do you think that he has clear ambitions? He wants Boehner's job?
ALLEN: I don't think there's any doubt that he wants to be speaker of the House at some point or something above that. He may want to run for president at some point.
I think, you know, Cantor came to the Congress in 2001 and swiftly moved up through the Republican leadership ranks. He's always been seen as a climber. He's always been good at that. And I think that's what he knows, is moving up, moving up, and how to do that.
And right now, he's in a position where he's got a seat at the negotiating table, and he risks that, I think, a little bit by being seen as someone who's always trying to undercut the speaker. Whether or not that's a fair portrait because a lot of people will find that motive even when it's not going on.
RAZ: Could he in theory become, you know, the next speaker or the leader of the Republicans in Congress if Boehner step down?
ALLEN: It's certainly possible, but I think he would probably face some dissent. And I think he is a divisive figure in some ways. I think he would likely draw some sort of a challenge. There's certainly a set of people who think that he's been unfair to Boehner, that he's sought to undercut him and sometimes at the expense of the party as a whole. Somebody said to me the other day, one Republican member said, you know, just remember he's all about Eric.
RAZ: The impression that he is leaving is that, in a sense, he is really the obstacle here to a deal. Do you think that's accurate?
ALLEN: I think this gets into personalities really fast, and it's kind of a shame because these people are dealing with a lot more than their own egos and their own stature and the way they talk to each other in a room. And perhaps, they should spend a little more time worried about the larger public policy. I think Eric Cantor is, as his staffers would say, doing to the best of his ability representing the Republican conference in these talks. And I haven't heard anything come from him that doesn't reflect their feelings.
RAZ: Jonathan Allen, if there is no deal by August 2nd and the United States does, indeed, default, do you think the public will blame the Republicans?
ALLEN: I don't know. I'll be somewhere with my gold bars stashed away. You know, I think that's - I think that will be the messaging war afterward, will be who won and who lost. And I think they'll spend the next, you know, year and a half trying to make that case. My sense is that the president of the United States has the most to lose of anyone.
RAZ: That's Jonathan Allen. He covers Congress for Politico. Jonathan, thanks.
ALLEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.