In 2014, Dave Brat unseated the sitting House Majority Leader of his own party. Now, he’s taking the fight for fiscal responsibility and immigration enforcement to the remaining GOP leaders while wondering how committed they are to those goals.
Brat shocked the political establishment in June 2014, when he handily defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary. He vowed to rein in the size of government and stop the granting of legal status to those who entered the U.S. illegally. Just a few months into his term, Brat says advancing meaningful change is a major challenge, even within his own conference.
On fiscal matters, Brat says last week proves the GOP struggles with consistency, as the House approved a Republican budget blueprint that vows to balance the budget within ten years but then agreed to significant new spending through a bill to provide doctors certainty of Medicare payments for the long term.
“It’s probably not as great an emphasis on fiscal discipline as you would want to see. The evidence of that is the day after the budget was done, we came out with a vote on the “Doc Fix”. I’m all in favor of the “Doc Fix,” but we did $140 billion unpaid for and that’s a problem,” said Brat.
Brat has very good things to say about the GOP budget and the process by which it was created. He praised House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., as “awesome” for leading an open, transparent process. Nonetheless, Brat voted against the blueprint in committee but later supported it on the House floor.
He says it was a matter of simple arithmetic after defense experts recommended additional spending. Late in the process, an additional $20 billion was inserted, but Brat was ultimately OK with the changes because spending offsets were found elsewhere in the budget.
The episode highlights a cardinal principle in Brat’s approach to Washington: making every effort to avoid adding another dime to the financial burden facing future generations.
“Every dollar of deficit goes straight on the back of the kids and it’s for real. Somebody’s got to pay that bet back. The current generation is consuming and the later generation is going to have to pay the bill,” said Brat.
And while Brat is a strong supporter of the “Doc Fix,” he says last week’s bill failed his simple test.
“The bad news is we got it with only two days to look at it. It dropped out of heaven on our plate. The good news is it makes a couple small moves on the entitlement reform side,” said Brat, noting Republicans also made concessions such as more spending on the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan (SCHIP).
“It’s a mixed bag, but the decider is it’s not paid for,” he said.
Brat says the Republican majorities have another chance to prove their commitment to fiscal responsibility on Obamacare.
“The other major indicator will be coming up in the reconciliation process. There, we get a chance to get rid of Obamacare with only a majority of votes in the Senate, 51 where ordinarily you need 60,” said Brat.
The 2010 health care law cleared the Senate through reconciliation, leaving opponents confident it can be scrapped the same way.
Along with his vow to reduce the size and scope of government, Brat’s campaign to defeat Cantor focused heavily on his commitment to oppose Democratic or Republican efforts to provide illegal immigrants with legal status, work permits and even a “pathway to citizenship.”
Due to Cantor’s resignation, Brat took office shortly after election day. He voted against the December “cromnibus” bill that funded President Obama’s unilateral immigration action through February. He opposed the funding again in February and March, but the clean Homeland Security funding bill was approved anyway, largely with Democratic votes.
Brat says Republican leaders assured members that separating homeland security from the rest of federal spending would allow the GOP majorities to fight “tooth and nail” against what they consider to be Obama”s unconstitutional actions. He says it’s a path that never materialized.
“I asked the press all along that process, ‘Do you see a fight out there? Have you seen a fight yet? Let me know when you see a fight.’ There was no fight,” said Brat.
“Everyone’s scared of their shadow on this issue in terms of 2016 presidential politics. That is leading the day instead of principle. We did. We voted to fund an unconstitutional action by the president,” he said.
Republicans who voted to approve the clean bill said the party could not afford to withhold funding from homeland security efforts and said the Obama immigration action may still be nixed by the federal courts. Brat says Congress made that far more unlikely.
“Now the courts can look at that la and say, ‘Not only did President Obama do it but a Republican Congress validated it. So it’s not a good day for the country,” said Brat, who says the lack of fight by Republicans already has the Obama administration examining ways to eliminate corporate tax loopholes and raise the debt ceiling without any input from Congress.
Amnesty opponents are split on whether Obama’s win on funding is the beginning or the end of the battle. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., believes the fight has only begun and be reversed in court or through upcoming appropriations work. However, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., thinks the fight is over and Obama won.
Brat says Huelskamp is probably right.
“I think it’s over unless the courts save us but that’s all wrong. We represent the people. We’re the body closest to the people. We run every two years. We shouldn’t be punting major issues like we do to the courts or to the executive branch because we don’t want to take the hard votes,” said Brat.
In a town where political rancor seems more fierce than ever, Brat says the biggest surprise for him has been the graciousness extended to him by members on both sides of the aisle, but he says that atmosphere is nowhere enough to trump entrenched interests and force positive change.
“When it comes down to policy, everybody takes ownership for their own piece of work,” said Brat. “At the end of the year, if someone said you have to give up everything you did that year for the good of the country, would you be willing to do that. Up in D.C., boy, people want to hang on to their handiwork. So it’s very hard to get big changes through,” said Brat.
Despite the odds, Brat says he is pressing ahead with his efforts to save future generations from financial misery.
“We’ve got to fix the entitlement problem and there’s no way to do that without being bipartisan and getting about 100 people behind closed doors and saying, ‘For the sake of this country, we have to do this.'” said Brat, who notes reforms will help seniors as much as younger Americans.
“These senior programs are done by 2032 in law. So the Democrats, when they run the negative ads, they fail to point out there won’t be any programs at all. They’re all insolvent by 2032 unless we fix them. That’s clearly the number one issue for the country to face,” said Brat.
There are scores of freshmen members in the House this year, but only one of them defeated his own party’s majority leader. Does Brat feel a special responsibility given his historic accomplishment or does he just focus on the things he promised to do if elected? The answer is yes to both.
“The special place I have is linked to those principles. I ran on them and the whole country became aware of them. So it puts me under tremendous pressure because if I don’t run on those principles and vote on the principles, people know I’m lying,” said Brat.
But as he faces the many legislative battles to come, Brat says the scrutiny is actually liberating.
“It’s kind of a good place to be. I’m kind of boxed in by my people in the seventh district who know exactly what I said I would do. Up in D.C., there’s a lot of people who don’t want to operate on those principles of fiscal responsibility, adherence to the Constitution, adherence to free markets. It’s a hot spot. I ran for it. I’m proud to represent the people, so I’m happy with what I’m doing,” said Brat.