Long gone are the days of legendary Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. For incoming freshmen representatives who asked how to get on the Speaker's good side, the rule was, "To get along, you go along."
That was the rule for incoming freshman for decades. Not any longer. Today, the freshman representatives tell Speaker John Boehner "Come along with us, or we leave without you."
Let the opening sentences from a recent front-page Washington Post news story inform us of the change:
"In just two months, a freshman class of Republicans has found a way to run the House … (the freshmen class has) coalesced into a bloc with its own ideas and a headstrong sense of its muscle.
"As Republicans and Democrats try to cut a short-term budget deal this week" (and avoid a government shut-down), "the freshmen are the wild card. They have the power to derail the whole process. Again.
"But even their own leaders don't know if they will."
That's right, readers. In high school, students used to learn the first line of Caesar's book, "All of Gaul is divided into three parts." Today, it would read, "The U.S. House of Representatives is divided into three parts; two-parts Republican, and one-part Democrat."
This brings us to the Caesar-like power (used first by former Speaker Newt Gingrich) to cut off all funding and bring the U.S. government to a grinding halt. Congress alone controls the nation's purse strings. In our 235 years, only modern-day Republicans have chosen to use the "power of the purse" in an admittedly irresponsible manner.
There are significant differences between the Republican leadership and the tea party Republicans. The Republican leadership wants to use the threat of a shutdown, but they really don't want to drive the nation over a cliff. Been there, done that.
On the other hand, the tea party Republicans are more than willing to fly full-speed into the ground. Like the actor Slim Pickens in "Dr. Strangelove," who rode a nuclear missile to its target, they'll be yelling, "Yahoooo!" and slapping their hats on their thighs as the nation, the government, and the economy go into a spinning freefall.
The Republican strategists are the best on Earth. They have learned how to tell the exact opposite of truth with such convincing exactness. For them, it's all about "perspective." They are so good at putting spin on an issue that if they were Charlie Sheen's PR firm, he would be receiving standing applause, media accolades and a raise.
Still, the strategy has it limits. They are smart enough to know that. The limits are that the public has zero tolerance for a government shutdown — even in the name of balancing the budget.
Thus, it came about that House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor told the press last Friday, "A government shutdown is not an acceptable or responsible option…" The Republicans then accepted, in toto, the plan put forward by President Obama for spending cuts. They now have two weeks (federal funding will continue through March 18) to come up with a plan to reduce spending and keep the government running until the end of the fiscal year.
But it turns out there was a catch to their generosity. Cantor went on to say that if the Democrats, in turn, don't accept Republican cuts, in full, then the Republican will close the government, and the Democrats will be at fault. Geez. Why can't they sit down like most adults do and fund common ground?
That's a little like the subway thug saying, "Give me all your money or I'll kill you, and the police will blame you."
There are two issues here. One: The Republicans propose massive spending cuts so deep that it will cause the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, and stunt our economic growth just as it's starting to turn around.
Two: Although Republicans, by their own admission, say it is utterly irresponsible to close the government — if Democrats don't agree to the cuts — Republicans will stop the federal government from functioning, anyway.
Here is what I would propose. Let's use the standard once applied by a former Republican President Dwight Eisenhower who believed all policies should be measured by one yardstick: Is it good for America?
Is cutting head-start programs for young kids going to return us to economic growth in the long haul? Why should Congress and the White House target the smallest slices of the budget for massive cuts? Will everyone share in the sacrifice to get back on the road to fiscal sanity?
I'll conclude with the wise words of a former educator and now Fed Board Chairman Ben Bernanke, who is urging state and local leaders not to shortchange education in their efforts to deal with today's fiscal problems.
"In the long run … the most important fiscal issue is whether the structure and composition of the government budget best serves the public interest," Bernanke said. "Research increasingly has shown the benefits of early childhood education and efforts to promote the lifelong acquisition of skills for both individuals and the economy as a whole."
Well said, Mr. Chairman.