By BRIAN HOWEY
On New Year’s Day, Indiana’s four freshmen members of the U.S. House voted against the so-called “fiscal cliff” deal. If the deal hadn’t passed — and it did by a 257 to 167 margin — most middle class families would have seen their taxes go up somewhere in the $2,000 to $3,000 a year range.
Three days later, U.S. Reps. Marlin Stutzman, Todd Young, Todd Rokita and Larry Bucshon became sophomores, joined by new Hoosier Republicans Susan Brooks, Luke Messer and Jackie Walorski.
They join an institution that is at absolute low ebb.. Last summer, Gallup had approval for Congress at a record low 10 percent. On the eve of the fiscal cliff deal, Rasmussen Reports had it at just 5 percent while 69 percent disapproved.
With the exception of Walorski who won by just under 4,000 votes, Bucshon who won by 29,000 votes and, possibly, Young (re-elected by about 35,000 votes), the rest of Hoosier Republican delegation really will never have to sweat out a November election. Their districts are overwhelmingly Republican, just as Democrat Rep. Pete Visclosky and André Carson’s region and Indianapolis districts are overwhelmingly Democrat.
The biggest danger to Brooks, Messer, Rokita and Stutzman would be a Republican primary opponent. Brooks will look over her shoulder and watch State Sen. Mike Delph or former congressman David McIntosh. Messer will keep an eye on Travis Hankins, Rokita will watch State Sen. Brandt Hershman, and Stutzman remembers auto dealer Bob Thomas’s 2010 challenge to then U.S. Rep. Mark Souder.
So in a game of survival of the fittest, it pays to play to a conservative constituency.
In these deeply conservative districts most voters loathe Obamacare, believe the 2009 stimulus package was a fool’s errand, that we are taxed too highly, and that raising any tax — even on millionaires and billionaires — is a bad, bad thing.
The problem is that a majority of Americans — 51 percent of them — did vote to re-elect Barack Obama (including 44 percent of Hoosier voters).
We are not highly taxed. Pre-cliff taxation levels haven’t been so low since the Korean War. In recent years, Hoosiers have seen property taxation fall, excise taxes cut, and we’re in the midst of a steep inheritance tax cut.
Stutzman, speaking on CNBC before the cliff vote, was asked about what his voters wanted. “My constituents are very concerned the $16 trillion in debt the country is carrying, they are very concerned about the trillion dollar deficits the federal government has carried over the past four years. And they see that something has to change with our spending habits. That’s the big concern.” Stutzman said that his constituents want spending to be addressed before raising taxes. “We haven’t dealt with the real problem which is the drivers of our debt.”
And Stutzman’s constituent concerns are absolutely valid. But for two years now, my take on debt and deficits has been that the problem can’t be solved just by cutting spending or raising taxes. It will take a combination of the two. Getting a Hoosier Republican to admit that additional revenue was needed was almost impossible until Sens. Dan Coats and Dick Lugar voted for the Senate cliff deal.
The reality is the Bush tax cuts didn’t create a motherlode of jobs and were never paid for, while the Republican-supported Iraq and Afghan wars and the Medicare prescription drug plan have created our trillion dollar deficits.
The fact is, Americans are segregating themselves by ideology. The Cook Political Report reported only six Republicans occupy majority Democratic districts, and only 18 Democrats are in GOP districts. The moderate Blue Dog Democrats — which once included Joe Donnelly, Baron Hill and Brad Ellsworth — have been decimated, down from 50 in 2008 to around a dozen today.
The new Republican-draw districts in 2011 and the “wave” elections of 2008 and 2010 have washed out the moderate consensus builders. Last May, about 15 percent of all Hoosier voters dumped Sen. Lugar, who consistently worked across the aisle.
President Obama also bears blame. CBS reported that since 2009, Obama has played 400 rounds of golf, and only twice did he include congressmen. In 40 pickup basketball games, Obama played with members only once — in October 2009 with Hill, Ellsworth and nine others. An array of presidents and congressional leaders have used the links, or late night bourbon sessions to build relationships and hammer out deals.
Little wonder there has been such gridlock.
Our new members can puff themselves up on the ideological urgings from home. But true leaders have to go home and educate the folks on why rigidity only breeds problems.
All our Hoosier Republican members represent agricultural districts. Despite the worst drought since 1988, Congress couldn’t pass a farm bill.
Ideology doesn’t put grain in the silos, pork on the grill and food on the table.
Correction: Last week, I wrote the Indiana Debate Commission had “cried foul” over the use of debate video in Democratic campaign ads. In reality, it was Richard Mourdock’s Senate campaign which had protested.
The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.