Today's Congressional Republicans are a concern. They're faced with arguably the most difficult political challenge in the history of the republic: turning around our entrenched culture of tax-and-spend.
Are they up to it? Early signs are discouraging.
The first warning that Republicans may be satisfied to just have some power back was the re-election of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to the top leadership posts. These are two professionals who successfully negotiated the back rooms of caucus politics to get where they are. Neither is a change agent by any stretch of the imagination. Selecting stronger leaders like Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan or Mike Pence in the House or Jon Kyl, Jim DeMint or even Tom Coburn in the Senate would have sent the message that this time Republicans mean business.
Judging by the results so far, such a decision would have also provided better leadership. The Republicans have been absolutely clueless since the election.
Empowered by an overwhelming popular mandate, facing a shellacked president and a repudiated lame duck Congress that shouldn't have even been meeting, how did they respond? Sadly, they participated in passing an orgy of legislation that had President Obama doing a victory lap while his recovered image as a conciliator burnished bright.
But it wasn't the politics, it was the substance that hurt. Anything worthwhile could have been done in the new Congress, retroactively if necessary. Instead of waiting, they got rushed into spending a few more hundred billion dollars, mostly on the same old, same old. If they're serious about balancing the budget and trimming the debt, they just made their task much harder.
They had plenty of principled arguments they could have relied on but didn't. For example, take that demonstration of cooperating bipartisanship at its best: the compensation package to the 9/11 victims. Its passage unleashed rounds of pompous self-congratulations, impressive even by Washington standards.
Yet there was no moral or legal justification for the payoffs. The victims weren't killed in the line of duty. The party at fault was Islamic terrorists, not the federal government. Americans sympathize with those who lost loved ones on 9/11, but they're no more entitled to compensation than victims of a murder or a mudslide.
Soldiers who die defending our country get $6,000 and, if there is a surviving spouse, $833 a month. The 9/11 victims, on the other hand, will receive compensation averaging over $1 million. As usual, this is money we don't have but spend anyway, with some Republicans going along like so many lemmings.
Even their big win - extending all the Bush tax cuts - provided further evidence that the Republicans may be overmatched. First, they gave away the store, agreeing to gobs of new spending just to maintain the status quo. For that, they got only a two-year extension, thus assuring that before long they will face more spending ultimatums to avoid ruinous tax increases. Score another one for Obama, already talking tough about the next round.
The biggest head-scratcher of all was the continuation of ethanol subsidies. Analysts of all persuasions, even environmental radicals, have concluded that our federal obsession with ethanol is wasteful and pointless. Yet once again farm state legislators dug in their heels and the leadership caved.
In the lame duck session, Republicans folded as if the election had never happened. So the prospects for real change now focus on the incoming freshman legislators. It's exciting to hear their principled, aggressive talk, but can they pull off the revolution?
An early test will be the authorization for raising the national debt. The newcomers are being asked to do the dirty work for the preceding Congress, which spent $3.2 trillion more than revenues. Now the administration has to have their votes to raise borrowing limits if it is to avoid total financial meltdown.
The pressure will be intense, but the freshmen are in a commanding position. If House Republicans are smart and strong, they could demand fiscal reforms that would virtually foreclose the budget debate before it even begins.
The people would love it. Now that would be real change and cause for real hope.
East Valley resident Tom Patterson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired physician and former state senator