Q and A with Heritage Action on the politics of a shutdown.
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz greets attendees as he arrives to speak at the Tea Party Patriots ‘Exempt America from Obamacare’ rally on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, September 10, 2013. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
If you’re mystified by the current state of Washington, you have to understand the thinking of the forces that are driving the fight.
Heritage Action is one of the powerful outside groups that decided months ago to launch a no-holds-barred crusade against Obamacare. The group has a national network of activists who’ve fueled the movement now led by Sen. Ted Cruz to pressure House conservatives not to budge on funding the government without changes to the health care law.
According to Heritage Action’s spokesman, Dan Holler, true default on our debt is impossible, polling can’t always be trusted, and elections alone shouldn’t determine the legislative agenda.
Below are excerpts from MSNBC’s interview with Holler, lightly edited for length and clarity:
MSNBC: What do you make of where things stand right now? I know this was a campaign that was in the works months ago. Did you anticipate getting to this point?
HOLLER: First, we finally reached that moment where by and large the Republican Party and the conservative movement are in agreement. Obamacare is one of biggest challenges we’re facing and the need to do something about it. that’s the movement that Heritage Action and a bunch of groups have been working towards since last spring.
The conventional wisdom pre-shutdown seems to have been proven wrong. Democrats are making unforced errors—House Democrats seem pretty nervous; 57 broke ranks and voted with Republicans with smaller [funding] bills. You combine that with early poling showing the gap starting to close as to who’s starting to blame—and the situation isn’t the end of the world politically. It’s a very principled reason we’re here.
MSNBC: But what about the polls showing that the vast majority of Americans don’t want to shut down the government over Obamacare? CBS News had a poll showing 72 percent of them didn’t want to.
HOLLER: It’s hard to tell with polling. Folks realize there is a government shutdown. But why is it shut down? Because House Republicans and conservatives are really concerned over Obamacare. Obama is not negotiating, and that’s making local news coverage—Democrats are defeating bills over veterans, threatening a veto. Once you take this into account, it may happen that with a more realistic scenario you get a different result.
MSNBC: Are you concerned, though, that these fights over the mini-funding bills muddy the waters in terms of the message that this fight is about Obamacare?
HOLLER: You always risk in Washington having too many things going on. Washington has a really short attention span. But the vast majority of folks outside of Washington, those who are paying attention when House Republicans are passing piecemeal bills—Why are we here? I’s because of Obamacare. Folks make that connection outside of Washington, I don’t think there’s that concern.
Members of House who are not thrilled with notion of defunding. They know their constituents want them to defund Obamacare, and they won’t be distracted…There’s a need to come back to Obamacare, and most of those guys are bringing it back to Obamacare.
MSNBC: Do you think that we would default if we breached the debt ceiling? What do you think would happen?
It depends on what you define as default. There is a lot of fear-mongering out there in terms of defaulting on our debt obligations— Goldman Sachs said [obligations to our creditors] are paid on a separate system that we could be prioritizing. The whole idea is that we would default on our debt obligation seems to be fear-mongering. The funds are going to be available, and it’s technically possible to do.
MSNBC: So you think that Treasury could just move the money around and avoid default because we have enough revenue? I read that Goldman Sachs note, and they also point out that after November 1, Treasury would run out of cash because of big Social Security and other payments due then, so prioritization, even if it were possible, wouldn’t really matter.
HOLLER: Certainly from a top line perspective, the US takes in plenty of revenue to service its debt. where you go from beyond there – that’s one of the reason that Republicans passed [its bill to prioritize interest payments]. It’s just a matter of how you do it.
One of the things that I think that Treasury should have had the responsibly of doing – is figuring out how this sort of stuff works…Obviously, they’ve had trouble setting up the Obamacare exchanges, so maybe they don’t have the technical expertise, but someone does. Someone can figure this out.
MSNBC: Do you think Republicans should be willing to breach the debt ceiling?
HOLLER: The question seems to be, is president willing to breach the debt ceiling . Republicans and conservatives negotiated with themselves three plus times. every single time, Reid was saying, ‘No we’re not going to negotiate.’
MSNBC: But should Republicans make their vote on the debt ceiling contingent on getting the changes they want? I know in the past, voting to raise the debt-ceiling votes often accompanied bigger budget debates. But the difference this time around—now and in 2011—is that Republicans are making their votes contingent on getting something for them.
HOLLER: The debt ceiling fundamentally serves as an alarm bell that we’re spending much more than we’re taking in, and it’s an opportunity to do something about it. The president acknowledges this but says we can negotiate outside of this [debt ceiling deadline]. You’d be hard-pressed to find a time when the president sat down and negotiated something on fiscal policy, without a forcing mechanism or looming deadline. Whatever folks want to say about using the debt ceiling or CR as a mechanism, the president doesn’t sit down and talk, and is not capable of doing so.
MSNBC: But do you think that using the debt ceiling is a different kind of pressure point, just given the consequences for the financial markets and the economy if we breached it? Even if we could prioritize interest payments, a lot of other people would be getting IOUs.
HOLLER: I think all these pressure points are different in their own unique way. When you have a president who’s so unwilling to negotiate, you have no choice but to use this. The idea that the Republican-controlled house, which was elected to change the [status quo]—that we’re going to let a major event go by, seems to be the antithesis of democracy.
MSNBC: OK, but Obama was re-elected, and Democrats kept control of the Senate. If Republicans really wanted to change things, shouldn’t they have to wait until the next election and elect more people who would?
HOLLER: Folks generally take away the wrong message from the 2012 election. You’re hard pressed to say that it was a election about ideas or certainly about one about Obamacare. Obama certainly didn’t make a strong case for it, and Romney didn’t make a strong case against it. The one election we had in 2010 was about Obamacare. Folks are taking away the wrong message, and you’re starting to see that correction— Maybe we don’t need to do universal background checks [for guns], maybe we don’t need amnesty.
Raising the debt ceiling, appropriating funds—that’s all part of the normal legislative process. During President Obama’s first term, those [discussions] were fair game to make policy changes—we had policy riders on the CR in 2011, spending cuts, and the debt ceiling deal was obviously a huge negotiation. [Democrats] really set the precedent for it.
MSNBC: But given the White House’s position now, do you think we’re going to breach the debt ceiling? Or are Democrats are going to give in?
HOLLER: I think their position is unsustainable. You can’t go through a posture of ‘we’re not going to negotiate.’ That looks out of touch. Jay Carney on CNN’s morning show couldn’t defend why the administration couldn’t talk to Republicans about right way to deal with the CR or debt-ceiling, aside from it being clean.
MSNBC: Could you tell me more about Heritage Action’s involvement in this fight, both inside and outside Washington?
HOLLER: The thing that I think is underreported is the role that constituents played in August and September. What we saw over August would not have happened without concerned citizens turning out to town halls, and all their involvement and engagement. They said, one, don’t bomb Syria. Two, defund Obamacare. It really sort of made it and pushed us to where we are today. Otherwise members are Congress wouldn’t be compelled, ad they wouldn’t go back and explain where they are with their constituents.
We obviously did the ads at beginning, middle, and end of august, then beyond that the regular engagement we have with folks—the 6,000 “sentinels” that we have, the regional coordinators across the country. That permanent presence where people live and work.
MSNBC: Do you think the role of Ted Cruz and other conservative leaders has been overstated?
HOLLER: I certainly think that Ted Cruz, Mark Meadows, Mike Lee—we wouldn’t be where we are without them. But wouldn’t be where we are but for the constituents. They are engaged and knowledgable. There’s a recognition now that beyond elections, you can change the way that Washington works as part of the legislative process. That’s one of the things, looking in 2008, 2009, 2010—folks wouldn’t have necessarily thought that’s what the Tea Party would be doing, getting into the nitty-gritty of legislative details.