Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Utah delegation shuns compromise, fears tea party

Published: Sunday, Aug. 7 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

"Whew!" or "Dang!" — readers can choose their response (or worse) to passage of the debt ceiling compromise. The measure passed handily, but without much help from Utah's congressional delegation. Only Rep. Jim Matheson supported it. That raises some interesting questions.

Why did all of Utah's Republican members of Congress vote against the legislation negotiated and endorsed by their party leaders to prevent catastrophic financial default?

Pignanelli: "Compromise: An agreement between two men to do what both agree is wrong."

— Lord Edward Cecil

A majority of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus voted for the compromise legislation. Most major business and industrial organizations (i.e., Chamber of Commerce, Manufacturers' Association, Business Roundtable, etc.) demanded that Congress support the measure to prevent a default on the nation's obligations. Moreover, a "no" vote is even more confusing in light of recent revelations that America's economic revival is in jeopardy.

Yet, the actions of Utah's GOP congressional members may reveal something deeper in this debate. Ideas about the role of government — especially its place in society and the extent of the funding — have become deep philosophical beliefs that provide little room for negotiation. What happened in Washington the last several weeks reflects an important struggle over core values. The problem was that immediate action was required to avoid global turmoil. The recent compromise only extends the argument — with both sides entrenched.

Webb: To be charitable, Utah's congressional Republicans stood on principle. They didn't get the cut, cap and balance legislation they demanded, and they refused to compromise. The trouble is, unflinching dogmatism is no way to run a country. Being a tough negotiator is one thing. Holding out for the impossible is silly.

I fully support a balanced budget amendment, but to demand passage of the amendment as a condition of raising the debt ceiling was unrealistic. Republicans control only one half of one branch of government. To demand something you know is not going to pass and refuse to be part of an absolutely necessary compromise to avert economic catastrophe isn't the kind of leadership I expect out of my representatives in Congress. The deal was by no means perfect, but it moves the country in the right direction, with a lot of hard work ahead, including entitlement reform. Republican leaders were heroic in holding out for significant spending cuts and no tax increases. They completely changed the debate in Washington, taking a big step forward. I'm just disappointed my good Republican representatives in Congress weren't part of the victory. I want my representatives to be players in solving problems, not to be standing on the sidelines throwing rocks.

Does the Utah tea party have enough power to dictate how Utah's Republican congressmen vote?

Webb: It's not the tea party, specifically, but it's the convention delegates that state and federal political leaders must face to advance in the next election — and many of them are tea party enthusiasts. Clearly, votes and positions taken by Republican political leaders are heavily influenced by concerns about caucuses. Politicians worry more about their standing with state and county delegates (I, by the way, am a state delegate) than they do with Republicans in general or voters in general. The solution, then, is for more mainstream Republicans to participate in party caucuses next March 15 and win delegate slots. More civic engagement by mainstream Utahns will result in more mainstream representation and a focus on practical problem-solving — instead of ideological purity and right-wing litmus tests — in Congress and the Legislature.

Pignanelli: As with many Americans, I have issues with the extreme and bizarre elements of the tea party (i.e., revisionist history, "birthers", etc.). Yet, they are driving the current debate in Washington, D.C. Democrats and moderate Republicans lost the opportunity to mold the discussion around innovative and creative means to efficiently provide government operations with sensitivity to the deficit and taxpayer burdens. With the tea party movement's strong positioning on the national scene, combined with the convention/delegate system, all Utah Republican incumbents pay close attention to it. Indeed, because of Utah's weird candidate selection process, a vote for the compromise would have been a death sentence for a member of Congress.

Will Matheson suffer because he supported the compromise legislation?

Pignanelli: Matheson played this well. By supporting the early cut, cap and balance legislation and the ultimate resolution, he is impervious to GOP attacks on the issue. The lefties and right-wingers are mad at him (as usual), but the mainstream majority is comfortable with his pragmatic and consistent course of action as a deficit hawk.

Webb: No. Matheson provided himself plenty of cover on the variety of votes he took during this debate. The far left might be mad at him, but that's normal for Matheson.

Pignanelli & Webb: On another note, along with many others, we express our condolences to former Gov. Norm Bangerter and his family for the loss of Colleen Bangerter — one of the most decent, compassionate individuals to have blessed our state with her public service.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com

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