Lawmakers went home for the holidays and got an earful from constituents about their juvenile behavior in Washington.
So, in their first major act of 2012, House Republicans picked up exactly where they left off: They staged a duplicitous debate in which they pretended that they were going to deny President Obama permission to increase the government’s borrowing limit.
The pretense had been clear since last summer, when 174 House Republicans voted for a budget deal that guaranteed that the debt limit would continue to increase this year unless two-thirds of the House and Senate voted otherwise — a practical impossibility.
But that didn’t stop many of those same 174 Republicans from marching to the floor Wednesday afternoon to vote for a resolution “disapproving” of the very same debt-limit increase they had already blessed. It was a model of deception: claiming to oppose something they had guaranteed would take effect.
“My resolution that is before this chamber will send a message that the constant borrowing from our children, our grandchildren, must come to an end,” declared Rep. Tom Reed, N.Y., one of the 174 Republicans who voted to allow the borrowing last summer.
“During my time in Congress, I voted nine times against raising the debt limit because it was not tied to spending controls. This is another time to say no,” argued Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Ill., who said yes last year to the increase he voted against Wednesday.
“If we do nothing, American prosperity will drown in debt,” said Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, another of the 174 Republicans who had authorized the drowning.
“The culture of Washington must be reformed from the ground up,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., thundered in opposition to the debt-limit increase to which he consented last summer. “The future of our nation depends on it.”
Actually, if the culture of Washington is to be reformed, a good place to start would be for Kinzinger and his colleagues to be more honest about their shenanigans.
The role of calling out Republicans for their two-faced behavior fell on Wednesday to one of their own, conservative Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who, unlike most of his colleagues, was perfectly consistent: He opposed increasing the limit last year, and he continued to oppose it Wednesday.
“This vote has been called a charade,” Flake said on the floor. “That is true. It is. Let’s face it.”
Flake, one of the few grown-ups in the chamber, was not done with his fellow Republicans. “I think we have to admit that even if the Senate had passed the House-passed budget, the so-called Ryan budget, we would still have to raise the debt ceiling,” he reminded them. “I don’t think anybody really disputes that. We are going to have to raise the debt ceiling again and again.”
Then Flake did something truly heretical: He reminded Republicans that “we were headed toward this cliff long before the president took control of the wheel.”
What Flake said was demonstrably true: Both parties created the debt mess, and to fix the problem both would have to be honest. Instead of being honest, however, House Republicans were staging a show so that they could tell voters they opposed the very debt limit hike they had authorized.
“We should never have passed that Budget Control Act the way we did,” said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., who voted no last summer. As a result, he said, Obama is “raising the debt ceiling without us being able to do a thing about it. We made a big mistake.”
Maybe they made a big mistake. Or maybe they did the right thing last year in reaching an agreement that kept the federal government from defaulting.
Reed, the floor leader for Republicans on Wednesday, wanted to have it both ways. “It’s so important, in my opinion, for the future of this nation, the future of the world,” he pleaded, with an urgency that he apparently lacked last summer. “The national debt is a serious threat to our very existence as an American nation.”
Reed and 232 fellow Republicans then voted to “disapprove” of the debt-limit increase — well short of the two-thirds majority needed to overcome a presidential veto. The House’s first legislative act of 2012 had been utterly pointless — which was just the point.
Dana Milbank’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.