On November 7, 2006, the Democrats marked their takeover of Congress with a raucous celebration at the Hyatt Regency hotel on Capitol Hill. Balloons and confetti fell from the ceiling as the party's leaders stood on the stage arm-in-arm, beaming with joy. “Tonight is a great victory for the American people,” Nancy Pelosi declared, as Chuck Schumer pumped his fists in the air behind her.
Last week, after retaking the House, coming two-thirds of the way toward retaking the Senate, and capturing hundreds of state and local offices from the Democrats in every region of the country, Republicans struck a much more subdued tone. No balloons, no blaring music, no fists in the air. John Boehner, the presumptive speaker of the House, did not even declare Republicans triumphant. “We have real work to do, and this is not a time for celebration,” he told the crowd.
Boehner seemed to understand that the Republicans' victory was not a vote of confidence from the electorate. It was a cry for help in the face of two years of reckless, hyperactive liberalism that threatens to make the country's considerable problems even worse. Voters demanded that today's governing challenges — and especially the weak economy and exploding deficits and debt — be taken seriously. They have given Republicans the beginning of a chance to do so.
It is only the beginning because, as Boehner also said, “We must remember it is the president who sets the agenda for our government.” Not much can be done from the House of Representatives alone. But not nothing, either. Republicans can show the country what a serious approach to governing looks like — articulating an alternative vision, proposing concrete solutions (even if they get vetoed), and looking for opportunities to force President Obama into positions that require him to moderate and compromise.
Boehner's speech offered hope that Republicans understand this. And in the days since, both Boehner and his deputy — Eric Cantor, who will likely be the House majority leader in the new Congress — have offered some further proof.
The day after the election, Cantor released a document directed to Republican members and members-in-waiting that laid out his view of how the new Congress should operate. He highlighted the need to deal with entitlements, while acknowledging that so far Republicans have not been specific enough. He made repealing Obamacare — piece by piece if a wholesale repeal doesn't work — the Republicans' top priority.
Since all the Republicans will really control after January is the House of Representatives, much of what Boehner and Cantor have had to say has involved changes internal to the House. The new House will, for instance, systematically review federal regulations that depress job creation. It will also require that before bills reach the floor their sponsors articulate what constitutional authority justifies the action they propose and why it is an action better taken at the federal than the state or local level. Boehner and Cantor, moreover, have promised to bring back the practice of rescission bills, which take back spending that has been appropriated but not yet spent; to ban earmarks; to build the House schedule around committee hearings rather than floor votes; and to do away with silly votes to commemorate local events or declare national popcorn month.
These are small and largely symbolic first steps, to be sure. There is much more the Republicans could do, even when it comes to internal reforms of the House — and particularly when it comes to the appropriations process. And there are some very real tests coming soon: the fight to retain the Bush tax cuts, the first Republican budget, the next round of the health care debate.
But symbols matter. And the message that Boehner and Cantor seem intent on sending in these early days is not one of glee or celebration but of sober, serious commitment to take on the painful governing choices the country now faces.
Boehner and Cantor know they have not really won anything yet, and the struggle to get the federal government under control and the country on track to prosperity is only beginning. It will take years of effort in Congress, and a successful presidential election in 2012. But a good start is essential. And a good start is what we have.
Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and the Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.