GOP Members of Congress Use Fiscal Showdown as Leverage to Damage Middle-Class Economic Security, One More Time

At the beginning of the year, Andrew Fieldhouse and I tried to document lots of the ways that the GOP House had managed to smother a full recovery from the Great Recession. The list was pretty impressive, but a key theme was that the GOP kept using the leverage of various fiscal decision points (reaching the debt ceiling, the expiration of tax cuts, the drawdown of the Recovery Act, etc…) to push for austerity on the spending side of government. And their tactic worked—the current economic recovery has seen historically slow growth in public spending, and by now the entire gap between today’s economy and a healthy one can be attributed to this austerity, full stop.

When we wrote our list, I had hoped any strategic gain to the GOP Congress stemming from throttling the recovery was over—the 2012 election had come and gone, and going forward from there it is not exactly obvious why slow economic growth is damaging to just one party or the other.

Obviously, I was wrong.

The new exploitation of external fiscal deadlines (the need for a “continuing resolution” to fund federal governmental operations after October 1 and reaching the debt ceiling in mid-October) concerns both a further ratcheting down of spending, but also the delay of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

So why would GOP members of Congress want to hold the normal functioning of government hostage to insuring that vulnerable Americans don’t get health insurance? Ignore the high-minded talk about saving the economy or jobs or the deficit—the ACA is a clear boon for both the economy and for lowering future deficits.

No, the real reason can be seen by going back to the last time there was a fight over an attempt to expand health coverage—the Clinton health care plan of the 1990s. Then (as now) the GOP congressional strategy of total opposition was based largely on the fear that a Democratic-backed plan that provided health security to Americans would, in the words of an infamous strategy memo of the time:

“…relegitimize middle-class dependence for “security” on government spending and regulation. It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government.”

 In short, the danger posed to the GOP from the ACA is that… it will work. It will make Americans’ economic lives more secure and prosperous, and they will reward politicians that defend it. The history seems pretty clear.

Lastly, it seems important (if sadly politically irrelevant) to note one more time that today’s fiscal debates are just wildly divorced from what the broad middle-class actually needs from policymakers.