There are at least two different ways to look at Rep. Doug Collins’ recent vote against funding hurricane relief and raising the debt ceiling: Collins was either voting on conservative principal, or he got lost in the ideological woods and misread the mood of the moment.
Collins was not opposed to funding hurricane relief efforts. He did, in fact, vote for a House bill to do that. But in the Senate, that legislation was attached to raising the debt ceiling, a move that Collins opposed. When the legislation came back to the House, Collins was one of 90 Republicans who voted against the deal.
Collins’ vote was instructive in several respects and perhaps speaks to the current polarization of American politics. That vote was only the second time Collins has voted against something President Donald Trump supported (the other vote was to put sanctions on Russia.)
That hurricane and debt ceiling legislation that Collins voted against was the deal cut between Trump and Democratic leaders on Sept. 6. The deal shocked Washington Republican leaders. Congressional Republicans were furious at Trump’s deal with the Democrats, but many went along with it because they didn’t want to vote against hurricane relief funding at a moment when two hurricanes were slamming the U.S.
From that perspective, Collins’ vote was a “safe vote.” He knew the legislation would pass and that his “no” vote would not harm the hurricane funding efforts. At the same time, voting against the deal allows him to tell his constituents that he stood against Washington spending by voting against raising the debt ceiling.
But before you think that Collins was just standing on principal, there’s more to it. Raising the debt ceiling really isn’t about cutting spending, it’s about Washington political games. Raising the debt ceiling allows the U.S. government to pay for spending it’s already done, not new spending.
The debt ceiling issue is really about political leverage. For the past 30 years or so, Republicans have threatened to not raise the debt ceiling in an effort to force Democrats to agree on future spending cuts. In 1995 and 1996, the government shut down for a short time when Republicans held the debt ceiling hostage. In 2011, the threat to again shut down the government sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average down by 2,000 points and the government’s credit rating was downgraded. In 2013, there was another debt ceiling crisis as Congress wrangled over passing the measure, or face defaulting on its debts and shutting down many government operations.
For all of that, Republicans have not cut, or even slowed, the rate of government spending by using the debt ceiling as political leverage. It is a failed GOP tactic, but one Republicans refuse to abandon.
Given that reality, Trump’s move to delay the debt ceiling fight for three months and cut a deal with Democrats on hurricane funding was a pragmatic move, even if it left his own party enraged.
Still, Trump was also playing politics. He’s upset with the GOP House and Senate leadership and his move to cut a deal with Democrats was, in part, a political slap at Congressional Republican leaders.
And there is this reality: While Collins and many other Republicans are ideological conservatives, Trump is not. Collins’ support of Trump isn’t about conservative political ideology, but about the reality that Collins’ district is heavily pro-Trump. And while Collins’ vote two weeks ago went against Trump’s position, he can’t distance himself too much from the President without risking his own political base, which is largely made up of die-hard Trump supporters.
As for efforts to rein in government spending, neither Collins nor his conservative colleagues are likely to accomplish very much. The real problem with federal spending is that most of it goes to entitlements, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment compensation, etc., and for interest on the national debt. That “mandatory” spending makes up 66 percent of the federal budget and neither party has the courage to touch any of it.
Another 18 percent of federal expenses goes to military spending and the final 16 percent goes to a variety of smaller items (transportation, education, health, international affairs, environment, etc.)
With Republicans clamoring for more military spending and Democrats wanting more “other stuff” spending, it’s unlikely that either side will ever make spending cuts.
The reality is, Americans rail against “big government,” but we demand hikes in our Social Security, better roads, better health care, more for the military and all other stuff that we expect government to provide us while at the same time we want to pay less taxes.
We are all hypocrites when it comes to cutting spending — what we want are cuts to other people’s programs, but leave mine alone! And both parties are filled with cowards who won’t dare tell us the truth — that we can’t afford all the stuff we want at the current rate of taxation.
The result is that Congress will continue to borrow money to pay for all the stuff we as citizens demand and leave the debt for our grandchildren to deal with.
All of this may be a sign that a clash is coming between Trump and conservative GOP members like Collins.
The president is only nominally a Republican. He spent many years funding Democratic candidates and briefly joined the Reform Party before moving into Republican circles. The GOP was just a means to an end for Trump.
And unlike Collins, Trump isn’t a conservative in the traditional sense. In fact, it isn’t clear just where Trump stands on many of the issues important to GOP conservatives because he constantly changes his position.
Trump’s move to join hands with Democrats on the hurricane funds and debt ceiling limit could be a sign that for Trump, “doing deals” is more important than GOP party dogma.
Still, Trump was right to do the hurricane and debt ceiling deal with Democrats two weeks ago. It wasn’t the moment to ignite a political fight over a useless debt ceiling vote as two large storms slammed the nation.
And Trump will also be right if he ultimately cuts a deal with Democrats and moderate Republicans for DACA legislation to give those who were brought here illegally as children a path toward becoming citizens. Those people are Americans in all but the paperwork and they are not to blame for their “illegal” status.
But Trump being right on those kinds of issues may not translate into support from conservative GOP Congressmen such as Collins, who have become accustomed to the extreme polarization of partisan politics in Washington and the extreme anti-immigration views of rural constituents.
Many conservatives didn’t like Trump very much in the election, but saw him as perhaps a useful tool to help enact their agenda.
But soon, a day of reckoning could be at hand where Collins, and other Trump supporters, find themselves caught between the competing interests of GOP Conservatism vs. Deal-Making Trumpism.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.