The Tea Party and the debt ceiling
Stan Collender is a former staffer on both the House and Senate budget committees, founder of the blog “Capital Gains and Games,” and a partner at Quorvis Communications, where he works with clients in the financial sector. He was also one of the first budget experts to address the House Republicans after the 2010 election. Looking back, he says, that meeting should have told him all he needed to know about how this budget battle has played out. We spoke earlier this afternoon.
Ezra Klein: How did you end up speaking to the Tea Party?
Stan Collender: You remember Snowmageddon? The next day, I was sitting at home with no power or heat and my cellphone rings. It was Michele Bachmann inviting me to be the first speaker at the first Tea Party meeting in the House. Now, you know my background. I was being considered for OMB in this administration. But where I come from, you don’t say no to a member of Congress.
The meeting finally took place on February 28th. This was the day before the vote on the first CR. So I spoke for 25 minutes, but it’s what came next that was interesting. After me were the Tea Party state chairs from Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida. And they spent the next 45 minutes screaming at these members, saying, plainly, we elected you and we can unelect you. And this was at longtime members like Joe Barton, who long predated the Tea Party. I never have seen members of Congress treated like that. Especially by their friends.
EK: And was it a list of demands? What did the Republicans have to do in order to avoid being “unelected”?
SC: The marching orders were, first, you must not vote to extend the continuing resolution [that would keep the government open through 2011] unless it, in their words, “defunds Obamacare.” Number two, you must not, under any circumstances, vote for an increase in the debt ceiling. Period. No conditions. Number three, and they said this explicitly, we don’t trust John Boehner or Eric Cantor. And the state party chair from Virginia was from Cantor’s district. And, finally, the members themselves told me afterwards that what they thought they did wrong in 1995 and 1996 was they gave in too early to Clinton.
The next day, five Tea Party Republicans voted against the first extension. The second one lost 54 Republicans. The third one lost 59 Republicans. What I took from that was, first, that the debt ceiling was going to be a lot more trouble than anyone realized. They did not want a negotiation there. There was a religious-like fervor on that point: Voting for the debt ceiling was a sin, and you can’t just sin a little. Second, Boehner and Cantor were going to have a lot more trouble than anyone thought. And then the third thing was for all those who thought they could get a deal early, it was clear to me that there was no way they could come up with a compromise or agree to a deal before the deadline. Even if it was a great deal, the presumption would be that they gave up too much by not waiting till the last second, just like with Clinton. So there’s no way they won’t blow through the 22nd of July, the date that got set up for an early deadline.
EK: What do you think the chance is we see a deal before Aug. 2?
SC: Less than 50-50.
EK: What’s the scenario for that? Is it something like the talks seem like they’re going somewhere, and then whatever the negotiators come up with unexpectedly fails on the floor after the Tea Party whips on it?
SC: Something like that. In the back of my mind I keep remembering something Peter Orszag said, which was you were going to need a combination of Democrats and Republicans in the House, and the only way that vote would be acceptable for Boehner to schedule is after negative market reaction that spooks people. It’s not unlike how TARP got through. The average member of Congress has got to be sitting there saying if I don’t vote for this, it’ll be a disaster, and if I do vote for it, it’ll be a disaster. So without the negative market effect, there’s not enough pressure. But remember Bachmann is running around saying there will be no negative effect.
EK: Which suggests to me that a market reaction could have a more significant effect on the psychology of some of these members of Congress than we give it credit for. They’re not prepared for it, and if it comes, it disproves some of the assumptions they’re working with.
SC: Right. And remember the general idea on Wall Street right now is that there will be a deal because there’s always a deal. But Wall Street works off of expectations. So if the market realizes they got this wrong, the reaction could be larger than expected.