On the night Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in November 2010, John Boehner laid out the new Congress’s key priorities: to restrain the growth of government, cut spending, reform how Congress works, and end the uncertainty in the economy to help get Americans back to work. But then he offered a cautionary note to voters: “While our new majority will serve as your voice in the people’s House, we must remember it is the president who sets the agenda for our government.”
As the first year of the 112th Congress draws to a close, it seems that Boehner, like so many other Americans, may have overestimated Barack Obama’s ability to govern. It would not be easy to say just what the president’s agenda has actually been over the past year. But House Republicans have done an impressive job of using what leverage they have had to pull Washington a bit rightward, and to set the stage for a real change of direction after 2012.
To begin with, Republicans have put a stop to the explosion of liberal activism that characterized President Obama’s first two years in office. Those years saw a massively wasteful stimulus boondoggle, a vast expansion of the government’s role in the health care system, a formalization and reinforcement of the too-big-to-fail approach to financial regulation, a 25 percent increase in domestic discretionary spending, and the two largest federal deficits in American history. Regulatory discretion, crony capitalism, and interest-group giveaways were the order of the day. The economy stagnated. It will take a great deal of work over many years to undo the damage, but House Republicans at least managed to halt its further reach.
They have also managed to restrain the growth of spending—though by less than they would have liked. In the budget they proposed in April, they laid out exactly what they hoped to do, looking to spur economic growth and avert fiscal catastrophe by cutting $6 trillion in federal spending over the budget’s first decade, and then cutting far more (balancing the budget and beginning to pay down the debt) in subsequent years through a transformation of Medicare.
That budget set an agenda, but putting it into effect would require more than just a Republican House. For fiscal year 2012, for instance, the House GOP budget proposed to spend $3.529 trillion, while President Obama’s budget proposed to spend $3.708 trillion. In the end, after a series of dramatic showdowns, the federal government will spend $3.618 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. On nondefense discretionary spending, Republicans proposed to spend $581 billion in 2012 while the president called for $644 billion. In the end, the government will spend $628 billion. That’s a start, but a very modest one. Doing more requires further victories.
But, while Republicans recognized the limits of their power, they also saw the potential of their House majority to change the conversation in Washington. They have changed the question that guides the policy process from how much to spend to how much to cut. The past year has seen one showdown after another between the president and House Republicans (while Senate Democrats have been largely derelict), but almost every fight has taken place on the Republicans’ turf. The Democrats have been forced to talk about the deficit, even if they still decline to do anything about it, and they have been forced to acknowledge the scope of our entitlement problem.
And it is on that front—the coming entitlement crisis that is easily the foremost cause of the impossibly grim fiscal projections that now confront the federal government—that House Republicans have made the most progress of all. This would not have been easy to predict a year ago, when it was far from clear if House Republicans would even propose any reforms of the Medicare program, which is at the core of the entitlement crisis. But, thanks especially to the leadership of Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, they proposed a bold reform that would turn Medicare into a premium-support system starting in 2022, and so could improve American health care in the coming decades while saving the government trillions of dollars.
Politically, the proposal was a daring gamble. Democrats at first thought it offered them a huge opportunity to scare seniors away from Republicans, and even many Republican politicians were wary of lining up behind the House budget. But by now it is becoming clear that the move will pay off. It has, for one thing, solidified conservative support for such a reform of Medicare, making it the new Republican orthodoxy. A year ago, no Republican presidential candidate would have backed a premium-support proposal. Today, they all do (except Ron Paul), and thus there is little doubt that the party’s nominee will too.
As the year drew to a close, there were even glimmers of movement toward such a reform among Democrats. In November, the New York Times reported that some congressional Democrats were quietly coming to the conclusion that not only was premium-support not an assault on the elderly, but that, “if carefully designed, with enough protections for beneficiaries—it might work.” In December, one of those Democrats—Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon—stepped forward to offer a premium-support proposal together with none other than Paul Ryan. Not even the most optimistic champions of market-based entitlement reform could have imagined such a thing a year ago.
There were, of course, serious missteps this year too. In the debt-ceiling talks, Republicans agreed to an arrangement involving steep defense cuts if the “supercommittee” failed to reach its deficit-reduction target, as it was all but destined to do. And at times the House majority has refused to take “yes” for an answer—indeed, if not for a needless delay in passing Speaker Boehner’s debt-ceiling proposal, some of the defense cuts in the final deal might well have been avoided.
But, given the fact that they controlled only one house of Congress while Democrats held the other and the presidency, Boehner and his members have a lot to be proud of. They showed that it is not always true that “it is the president who sets the agenda for our government.” Confronted with a very liberal but weak and ineffective president, House Republicans managed to play an outsized role in setting that agenda, and in helping the public to see why electing a new president should top the agenda for 2012.