Living the small government dream


updated 3/7/13

Let me begin with a confession: I have a professional crush on Ryan Lizza – the master of longform political profiles. Nearly every time I read one of his New Yorker stories – fascinating windows into our political culture and the sausage making side of lawmaking (or, as it may be, political posturing in lieu of lawmaking) – I stop a few times to gawk at some pithy and shockingly frank quote he’s managed to extract from a public figure, often a high profile one. I have a habit of reading them aloud to my boyfriend, who though typically less geekily impressed by Lizza’s skill at squeezing unprepared remarks from politicians, acknowledges after some prodding the awesomeness of said quotes.

Just the other night, I read him this paragraph, from Lizza’s new profile of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, which is really a story about ideological and tactical fractures among House Republicans. It quotes Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who believes the 2010 class of House Tea Partiers is ruining the party:

(Cole) was dumbfounded that so many of his colleagues voted against the fiscal-cliff deal. “These guys have no endgame,” he said. “I mean, they just are so desperate to do something that they don’t think past their nose. And that’s the dangerous part of this.” He added that he couldn’t understand what the opponents of the deal believed they were accomplishing: “I saw one of them on television who said, ‘Well, Obama will cave.’ Really? With all the polls running in his direction, his popularity moving up, ours in the tank? He’s not going to cave. Some of these guys will hold a political gun to their head and threaten the President: ‘Do what I want or I’ll pull the trigger!’ Like he cares?”

These are the same folks who see the merciless, across-the-board spending cuts sequestration promises as a political victory – a position that could ultimately amount to political suicide of the kind Cole foretold after the fiscal cliff vote.

For proof, wrote liberal David Sirota recently for Salon, look to California.

Facing its own budget crisis in 2011, and with Republicans in the state assembly wholly unwilling to support tax increases of any kind, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown proposed and passed a budget including deep cuts to higher education, health care, welfare, state workers’ pay, and the criminal justice system. As Sirota writes:

A Democratic governor spearheading this kind of agenda might have seemed like a huge political victory for the conservative movement, except for the fact that Brown didn’t see the cuts as an end unto themselves. On the contrary, he viewed them as a means of prompting a larger, more constructive discussion about government in general and taxes in particular. Specifically, he framed the budget cuts as being the effect of the GOP’s – and general public’s – unwillingness to raise taxes, and cited the budget cuts’ effects as a reason that voters should approve tax increases, which is exactly what they voted to do last year in resounding fashion.

Also last November, California more or less became a one-party state. With a supermajority in the state assembly, Democrats no longer need any Republican support to pass tax hikes legislatively.

The political lesson, as Sirota sees it, is that once voters experienced smaller government first hand, they rejected it. Which is why the current sequestration is Obama’s “Jerry Brown moment.”

Obama has for weeks been condemning sequestration, and laying blame for it at the feet of uncompromising House Republicans. Now, Sirota writes, he has an opportunity to “cast himself as the reasonable adult a la Brown, but more important. As in California, the cuts will likely be so deep, so ubiquitous and so obvious to voters … that progressives will be able to cite them as real-world proof of why America needs to fundamentally reevaluate its view of government and taxes.” With deep spending cuts, “no longer will ‘government’ be just an easily demonized abstraction. It will become what it became in California: tangible things that most people like, such as airports, education, borders and food inspection.”

As I blogged this fall, Sirota's theory about government being easy to hate in the abstract, and austerity being hard to stomach in reality, has proven itself out in a number of Colorado communities that have voted to steadily relax their own strict anti-tax law, admitting that it’s kind of nice for government to have some money to put toward things like road improvements, schools, and public health services – money that’s hard to find without ever increasing revenues.

Here are a few ways Westerners will experience federal sequestration: Cooke City, Mont., a town of 75 on the edge of Yellowstone National Park, won’t have its main access road – and economic lifeline plowed until late May, according to the Billings Gazette. (The local Chamber of Commerce would prefer it be opened up to a month earlier.) The opening of access roads to Yosemite, and mountain towns that depend on the flock of tourists to the park, may be similarly delayed. Hospitals in Colorado expect to be cash strapped, as Medicare payments drop, which could mean the elderly wait longer for care, and the young receive fewer vaccinations. Federal payments to Oregon timber counties, which are already on life support, are shrinking even smaller. Thousands of Defense Department employees in New Mexico will take pay cuts, and construction projects at the state’s military installations – some of its most important economic engines – are expected to be delayed.

Will the pain of these spending cuts be real and undesirable enough in the rural West to prompt a fundamental rethinking about what we want out of government? Given how deeply rooted anti-tax sentiment is, it would really take something big to broadly shift public opinion. It’s too early to say if the cuts we now face will be big enough. And on the flip side, it seems the current crisis could just as easily serve to affirm the skepticism of the feds that so many Westerners harbor. For government dysfunction is clearly not on the wane.

Cally Carswell is the assistant editor at High Country News.

Photo: Eric Cantor, John Boehner, Mike Pence and Marsha Blackburn, courtesy Flickr user republicanconference.

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