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A long twilight struggle

Victory over crippling federal debt, House Republicans learn, may not come quickly


Associated Press/Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta

A long twilight struggle
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WASHINGTON—Randy Hultgren spent a recent day walking the halls of Capitol Hill as he has most weekdays since joining Congress in 2011. But this time about 100 middle-school students from Hultgren’s Illinois district trailed the congressman. Lawmakers often don’t give tours. But, with the government’s partial shutdown playing havoc with the students’ trip, Hultgren stepped in.

At Statuary Hall, where the U.S. House met in the first half of the 18th century, Hultgren shared the story of John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln. They served together in this room for three months before Adams died in 1848. Hultgren told the students how Adams fought to end slavery for years but died without seeing the results of his struggle. Lincoln carried the battle to its completion. Hultgren thinks hearing Adams rail against slavery influenced Lincoln’s future arguments.

“Sometimes we want to see things happen quickly, but they don’t often happen that way,” Hultgren told the students. Listening to his own advice, Hultgren realized these students may find themselves fighting the current battle to get the nation’s fiscal house in order. “They are going to be feeling a lot of the burden of bad choices that have been made in Washington,” Hultgren told me later. “But if we can start some good things, maybe some of these young people can carry it forward and finish the job.”

That long journey to cut the nation’s bondage to debt and exploding entitlements received a boost during the 2010 elections when Republicans took the House. Many of the 87 Republicans in that freshmen class came to Washington with strong conservative views and short political resumés. More than half had never run for office before. They shared a mission to make a dent in Washington’s spending habits, and they experienced success in forcing the spending cuts in 2011 called the sequester.

Today, these now-sophomore lawmakers remain unfazed by the media blitz blaming them for Washington’s woes. They say they came here to do something big even if it meant a premature end to their political careers. They make no apologies for trying to get the nation back to living within its means even as Democrats call them extremists and saboteurs.

They have become the lawmakers driving House policy. When White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Oct. 10, “It’s often the case that [Obama] or others meet with leaders of the House and then find out that the decisions are being driven by other members of the House,” Carney was referencing this class of conservatives. They came in focused on stopping Obamacare. But Tim Huelskamp, one of these sophomore lawmakers, said the shutdown debate has shown how little success they have had.

“We did slow down discretionary spending, which is part of the problem but not the significant part,” said the Kansas Republican. “The biggest entitlement in modern history is Obamacare, and nothing seems to be pushing back against it.”

Progress will be difficult as long as Republicans control only the House while Democrats possess the Senate and White House. But conservatives believe the government shutdown gives Americans a taste for how the federal government pervades every part of life.

Small businesses like NoDa Brewing Company in Charlotte, N.C., couldn’t sell their newest brews because the federal agency approving labels was shuttered. Crabbing vessels remained docked in Alaska because skippers couldn’t get the permits needed to drop their bait traps. Officials barred volunteer military chaplains from conducting Mass. A privately owned restaurant in San Francisco and an inn on North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway had to close because they sit on federal lands. The government gave an elderly Nevada couple 24 hours to leave their home of more than three decades because it too rested on federal land.

But some Americans began taking matters into their own hands: A billionaire Houston couple gave funds to keep Head Start programs running for 7,000 low-income children in six states. South Carolinian Chris Cox spent days doing work around the memorial grounds on the National Mall, mowing the lawn, emptying trash cans, and clearing overhanging branches. A charity stepped in to pay the death benefits to families of fallen soldiers after the Pentagon said it could not provide the $100,000 “death gratuity.”

Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., hopes the government shutdown has punctured the perception that government dollars and programs are the only way to solve problems. “It may work for a little while until you understand you are standing in line all the time for the rest of your life waiting on the next government check,” he said. “You are trapped in a system that doesn’t allow you to move forward.”

Lankford preaches patience. He believes more Americans will understand why the House GOP fought when voters start paying higher premiums, face penalties, have fewer doctors to choose from, and have trouble finding full-time work because of Obamacare. “The thought that you can come in and throw one Hail Mary pass and you are going to score a TD and get everything done is certainly exciting, but it’s not real,” Lankford said. “We have to be able to find ways to be able to move things along four yards at a time and continue to make progress.”

Lankford sees it as at least a 10-year battle. By then the students in Hultgren’s Capitol tour will be old enough to vote, perhaps making his talk at Statuary Hall as important as the shutdown negotiations then occurring a few miles down Pennsylvania Avenue.


Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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