A Californian Sees the Writing on the Wall

Two-term Congressman Tom McClintock, an emerging leader of California's conservative faction, holds an optimistic view about the upcoming national election -- but he harbors troubling doubt regarding how victorious Republicans will respond. 

In a recent sit-down interview for American Thinker, I sought to obtain a follow-up report on the escalating dispute between House Republicans and the IRS over alleged harassment of Tea Party organizations and key leaders.  As reported in a post-interview blog, the dispute may move toward a formal hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee. 

Then, McClintock, who overpowered his Democrat rival 64% to 36% in California's recent primary election, offered views on other issues of the day.

AT: You serve on the powerful House Budget Committee, whose chairman, Paul Ryan, managed to get a budget bill passed and sent to the Senate.  In a speech on the House floor, you expressed sympathy with those "who believe the budget can and should be balanced much sooner."  Yet you urged passage.  Why?

TM: Paul Ryan operates under the constraint that he's got to develop a plan that can pass the House of Representatives.  My point to conservatives is we can bring the budget back under control faster than this does, but that's not the issue.  The issue here is: is this sufficient to restore the solvency of the United States government in time to avert a sovereign debt crisis?  It certainly meets that test.  This is a case where we must not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.  This is enough to save our country.  That's enough to merit our support, even though we can all imagine something better.

AT: While all that may be fine in a contentious election year, to really move toward balancing the budget, Congress must roll back the budget baseline, cut the size of the federal government, and make radical revisions to entitlement programs.  Do you agree?

TM: We could roll back the baseline to zero, shutting down the federal government, sending the military home, firing every government employee, closing every federal office and all of the embassies overseas -- everything -- [that] still doesn't balance the budget, because entitlement programs are currently consuming more than the entire revenues of the government.  Until we address the entitlement spending, we can't bring the federal government back toward solvency.  The beauty of  the Ryan plan is that it offers a vastly superior plan to bring entitlements under control without hurting current Medicare recipients.

A point I made recently with respect to the appropriations bills is they still contain an enormous amount of utterly indefensible spending.  Even though they were within the Ryan minimums, that's still no excuse for wasting money.  Our charge was to stop wasting money. 

Under the Constitution, all appropriations begin in the House of Representatives.  The buck starts  here.  The government does not spend a dollar unless the House of Representatives says it spends that dollar.  We can no longer blame Harry Reid in the Senate or Barack Obama in the White House for waste in the budget.  If it passed our House, we've approved it, and we're responsible for it.  Unfortunately, a great deal of waste is still passing the House.

AT: If Republicans  get control of the Senate and Mitt Romney is president, would the House leadership be willing to grasp this issue and truly cut spending?

TM: I don't know.  That is the question on which the jury is still out.

What I do know is the rank-and-file House members have already proven themselves ready and willing to do so.  Most of the amendments that were offered to further reduce the appropriations bills this year commanded a majority -- and in some cases an overwhelming majority -- of House [Republican] members.  The problem is that those cuts were opposed by the leadership which, in conjunction with the Democrats, killed the amendments.

So I don't have a ready answer for you.  I don't know.  I do know this: without a Senate majority and the White House, bringing spending under control is impossible.  But I can't tell you with confidence that the Republican leadership in the House has measured up to the trust that the people have already given it.

AT:  There are going to be people upset by that.  According to recent reports, about a dozen conservatives at a dinner meeting discussed how Boehner and other House leaders can be pushed toward a more aggressive legislative and PR campaign against Democrats this summer.  Can you speak to the attitude discussed?

TM: I was not there, but I share their concerns.  I've stated to Boehner directly in Republican conference meetings that I believe it is a mistake to assume responsibility for passing legislation out of the House to the liking of Harry Reid and a majority of the Senate Democrats -- the position they've taken on many critical bills.  It is the responsibility of the House, I have said, to pass legislation that comports with the promises we made to the people who entrusted us with a majority of the House.

It is the responsibility of Harry Reid and the Democrats in the Senate to pass really bad legislation because that is what they promised their constituents they would do.  Once each house has acted, we'll have two entirely different visions of the future from which the American people can choose.

That doesn't mean that, in the meantime, we have to suffer with gridlock.  There is a conference process that has evolved over centuries that is very good at resolving differences between the two houses.  The problem is that that process, in its classic form, hasn't been invoked in many years  

AT: In the last number of years, the House votes out specific legislation, it goes over to the Senate, and Harry Reid sits on it.  Or it's subject to filibuster rules, and nothing gets done.  The end result is we're stuck with continuing resolutions as a way to keep things going.

TM: The continuing resolutions ought to abide by the process I've just outlined.  Unfortunately, instead, the continuing resolutions which originate in the House are pre-negotiated with Harry Reid.  So, the House is then bound by the diktats of Harry Reid, who is not even a member of the House -- and that's what I object to.

I've said, once each house has acted independently, as the Constitution envisions, and we have a conference process that then resolves the differences, I will cut the leadership a deal of slack on that final product because it does have to be the product of compromise.  But I will not give them that latitude on legislation originating in the House, which should comport with the promises we made to the people who gave us the majority.  It should not comport with what Harry Reid and the Democrats want.

I think [Boehner] makes a very big mistake when he attempts to craft legislation in the House to assure its passage in the Senate.  That's not his job.  That's not the job of the House.  That's the job of the conference committee to be convened after each house has acted independently on  a subject.

AT: The latest Field poll shows Obama leading Romney in California [48-32].  However, a favorability rating below 50% for the incumbent this early suggests possible problems for him later -- given that incumbents generally drop in favorability as the election nears.  Do you think Obama could actually lose California?

TM: We should not take the election lightly or for granted.  There's too much riding on it.  However, I don't believe this is going to be a close election.  I think it's going to be one of the most historic blowouts in the history of the country.

There is something going on out there among the American people that the polls are simply not picking up.  We catch glimpses of it every now and then.  We got a glimpse of it in West Virginia a few weeks ago, where the president of the United States finds himself on the Democratic ballot with a convicted felon currently serving time in Texas, and everybody knows that.  The convicted felon serving time in Texas wins 41 percent of the Democratic votes in the primary in West Virginia against the incumbent Democratic president.

Two weeks later, we see the same percentage in Arkansas.  The same day in Kentucky, Obama's on the ballot by himself, but in Kentucky you can vote "uncommitted," and 42 percent of the Democrats in Kentucky voted for "uncommitted" over the incumbent president of their own party.  We saw the same thing in Wisconsin, where things were supposed to be neck-and-neck, and it turns out that Walker wins by at least 7 points.  So there's something going on out there that the polls are not picking up.

AT: An article in American Thinker argued that the election would not be about jobs or other issues.  It would be about a clash of worldviews.  Romney is beginning to move in that direction.  Obama is moving that way, too, to the extent he stops thrashing from one issue to another.  Do you concur?

TM: Absolutely.  This is a different climate from any I've seen in the 40 years or so that I've been actively in the political arena.  There is a far higher level of civic engagement than anything I've seen before this.  The closest I can come to it is the month or so prior to the 1980 election, but that was very short-lived.  This has been going on since the spring of 2009, and it has continued to increase in intensity as people do what Americans have always done when they sense their county is in trouble.  They sense a danger gathering on the horizon, and they rise to the occasion.  They're doing that this time.  They're paying far closer attention to the issues involved in this election than I've ever seen.

You can find such civic engagement occasionally throughout American history as climactic, but not in my lifetime.  This is something very rare and very profound.  I think that this generation is destined to rediscover and restore American founding principles on individual liberty, constitutionally limited government, and personal responsibility. 

Even though I'm a bit more pessimistic over the next year or two because of the policies now in place, I'm much more optimistic about the long-term future of our country.  This is not the first time that our country has drifted away from its founding principles.  But the farther it drifts, the stronger those principles begin to pull us back.  We're seeing that dynamic again in our own time, and I can't imagine a more exciting period to be alive in our country than right now because I believe this generation is going to be the one to restore those principles.