If we actually do witness the spectacle of the most-powerful government on Earth failing to muster the collective will to pay 44% of its outlays–or even defaulting on its debt–simply because its leadership cannot agree to keep it solvent for another 2 years, this will owe largely to the actions of a typically softspoken but dogmatic and ambitious man, a Congressman from Richmond, Virginia. Current political narratives, from the incredulous to the troubled, often locate this deep intransigence with “the Republicans” or “the Tea Partiers,” but as many as half of the House Republican Caucus are now opposed to raising the debt limit at all–and while this particular party leader continues to participate in negotiations over the proposed debt-reduction plan that would authorize an increase in the Federal debt limit, he has only encouraged them.
In an interesting Washington Post article highlighting the growing rift between the House Majority Leader and the Speaker, the former passed the buck to Conservative backbenchers during a press conference: “I don’t think the White House understands how difficult it is for fiscal conservatives to say they are going to vote for a debt-ceiling increase,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), indicating that he considered Republican consent to increase the Federal debt limit to be the Republicans’ “compromise” in debt-reduction talks.
(Note: The barebones history of Cantor’s time in Congress is drawn from the Almanac of American Politics 2010, a publication of the excellent American politics weekly National Journal.) I suspect only the recently-repented and the unrepentant ambitious “get religion.” Majority Leader Cantor has long been recognized as one of Congress’s immoderate social climbers, but recent events make him look like he’s truly in it for himself. Cantor was first elected to Congress from Virginia’s 7th Congressional District in 2000, and after just 1 term in Congress Cantor was appointed Chief Deputy Majority Whip by Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO). This made him essentially the House Republicans’ key agent for polling members of the House Republican Caucus on their opinions of pending legislation; the Whip’s job, as the title implies, is to corral party legislators into voting for bills supported by the party leadership. (So, while the Majority Leader talks up limited government in an ideologically-driven game of brinksmanship with the President which could lead to the half-defunding of our government next month, bear in mind that in his 2nd term in Congress Cantor was tasked with traversing the House Republican Caucus, asking members if they intended to vote for President George W. Bush’s massive Prescription Drug Benefit in summer 2003. Actually, at the time then-Deputy Minority Whip Cantor was also a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, and served as an advocate for the Prescription Drug Benefit, which is the largest programmed expansion of an entitlement since Medicare’s inception in 1965.)
When Tom DeLay resigned as House Majority Leader in 2006 amid revelations of his misuse of campaign funds, Congressman John Boehner (R-OH) challenged Majority Whip Blunt, in theory next in line to become Majority Leader. Cantor enthusiastically supported his taskmaster’s bid for Majority Leader and eagerly sought to replace him in his old post; he relented in his own bid when Boehner won and Blunt returned to his position as whip. But in the context of the election of Barack Obama as President and of a Democratic supermajority to Congress in 2008, a discouraged Roy Blunt stepped down from the Minority Whip post; Cantor was elevated to replace him without opposition. In January 2009 Cantor proposed an alternative to President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus plan, persuading every member of the House Republican Caucus to vote against the President’s proposal. In addition to rallying unanimous opposition to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Cantor also achieved total Republican opposition to the President’s signature Health Care Reform and near-total opposition to financial regulatory reform (though the latter has remained immensely popular with the public).
Then-Minority Whip Cantor also played a more-prominent role than then-Minority Leader Boehner in building the new Republican House majority during Republicans’ massive 2010 rally. He is a principal architect of the “Young Guns” program, designed to identify articulate Conservatives with a knack for fundraising among Republican Congressional candidates. Challenger candidates who show promise are given offers of money and other assistance from the party, cultivating ongoing relationships with House Republican Campaign Committee leaders before they even win an election. This allowed the HRCC to efficiently allocate resources during the largest swing of Congressional seats to Republicans since 1938–and to facilitate a sense of reciprocity and sympathy with the force that would drive the Republican Party further to the right.
As the Almanac of American Politics 2010 summarizes his political behavior, “Cantor…has been deeply involved in party efforts to rebrand itself after two consecutive disappointing elections in 2006 and 2008. Modeling himself after former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who led his party to take control of the House in 1994, Cantor’s aggressive style has earned him the enmity of House Democrats…” That’s not all it has done by now, however. Cantor has made the House Republican Caucus useless for Boehner. This seems to have been the point, however. After years of consent to the latter’s leadership and seemingly full agreement over opposition to President Obama’s policies, it now appears that Cantor either wants to be Speaker himself–preferably as soon as possible–or if he isn’t too hung-up on titles, he at least has his own ideas and is willing and able to pull the rug out from under the current top-ranking Republican.
2 events from the past month clarify the advantage the House Majority Leader is pressing on the Speaker right now:
1.) When Cantor elected to pull out of the Biden talks (which aimed at reducing the Federal debt by $2.4 trillion over the next decade rather than the President’s Deficit Commission’s or House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed debt reduction of about $4 trillion) on June 23, the 1st person to find out he would do so apparently wasn’t the Speaker of the House but a Wall Street Journal reporter writing an article on the debt-reduction negotiations.
2.) After the Speaker encouraged the President to press on with an ambitious $4 trillion debt-reduction plan that he assured the latter could include some tax increases, it was Majority Leader Cantor who insisted that a larger debt-reduction plan wouldn’t work because it would have to include tax increases that their caucus couldn’t support. This brings us to last Saturday, when Boehner declared a larger and more ground-breaking deal to reduce deficits dead.
Now Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has proposed a deal that would shift the power to raise the Federal debt limit to President Obama which would give him ultimate authority to independently increase the Federal debt limit by $2.5 trillion dollars over the remainder of his 1st term. The details of the plan–and yet-more insinuations that the House Majority Leader is deliberately overshadowing the Speaker–were clearly laid in a Washington Post online report on Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has eagerly stepped forward to work-out this political release valve with McConnell, but the House of Representatives still remains a possible stumbling block.
All the while, Cantor has been insisting on what cannot pass a vote in the House. His critics have said it’s a leader’s job to lead, and that his repeated claims not to be in the lead of the House Majority are a repudiation of his leadership. These criticisms would be right, but the Liberal Ironist suspects Cantor is a Conservative insurgent by circumstance: His repeated insistence that tax increases or simple votes to increase the Federal debt limit are unpassable in the House are in part probably assurances to his caucus that they don’t have to compromise and that their demands are politically viable–in short, ingratiation. 8 years ago Eric Cantor was counting Republican votes for the Prescription Drug Benefit; today he lets Speaker Boehner try various forms of compromise with President Obama in the interest of a big deficit-reduction deal, and he serially undercuts the Speaker’s hand by insisting there is no bargaining range. There is nothing remarkable (or even inherently unreasonable) about a politician wanting to consolidate power, but Cantor’s cynical cultivation of a hard partisan line at such a perilous time not only for our economic recovery but possibly for his own party’s principles sets a high bar for political self-seeking. House Majority Leader sounds like a great job these days: Listen to party leaders on both sides of the aisle speak in earnest about the need to reach an agreement, say “No” to the terms, and watch your star rise. It will be interesting to see how he plays his cards when he exhausts the political support he can arouse with that strategy.