THE BLOG
02/12/2014 03:00 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

Lesson From the House Debt Ceiling Vote: The GOP Is the Tea Party

The U.S. House voted Tuesday to raise the debt ceiling, likely allowing the country to avoid defaulting on its bills as soon as Feb. 27.

For the first time since Republicans took control of the House in the 2010 elections, the bill was "clean," which is a euphemism for "extortion-free." That is, there were no spending cuts or other GOP-friendly items tacked on to the legislation.

What is striking, though, is that while Republican House Speaker John Boehner brought the bill to the floor and voted for it, only 27 other Republicans in the House voted with him.

Let's let that sink in for a second ... 201 of 229 Republicans who voted opted not to raise the debt ceiling. Which, to me, invites this question: Why do we even talk about a Tea Party and a Republican Party anymore? Clearly, they are one in the same, at the very least in the House. Voting against the debt ceiling isn't "conservative"; it's reckless, ideological, irresponsible and not something anyone charged with governing the nation should consider. John Boehner knew that, and so did most of the House GOP leadership. But the rank and file went full Tea Party on the vote.

Raising the debt ceiling is not spending or borrowing more money. Rather, the action merely allows the country to fulfill its already agreed-to obligations, which the government committed to when Congress passed a budget and appropriation bills and the president signed them into law.

In fact, raising the debt limit was, for decades, a bipartisan, pro forma action. The debt ceiling has been raised 42 times since 1980, with Ronald Reagan agreeing to it 18 times and George W. Bush signing off on it on seven occasions.

Why? Because it is not "conservative" or "liberal" to support the legally enacted commitments of the country. Conservatives are usually quick to preach personal responsibility. Conservatives opposed bailing out home owners who got in over their heads with bad mortgages in the 2000s, arguing the borrowers made an agreement and had to stand by it. Why is the country any different? In fact, given how much we rely on the country's word to do business (it's the basis of our currency), it is way more important that the country live up to its financial obligations than any individual homeowner.

Essentially, the 201 Republicans voting against raising the debt ceiling could be doing so for one of two reasons (putting aside electoral strategy, which, while probably the most compelling reason to the voters, can't be the public justification for the vote and doesn't absolve House members of their duty to govern):

1) The House member opposes making good on the obligations the country already made in legislation.

2) The House member wanted to use the possibility of a default as a tool to extort other favorable policy changes.

The first explanation is irresponsible on its face, but the second is more troubling. Who are these House members extorting? It's not some third party "over there." It's us. It's me, it's you and it's everyone who lives in the United States. Defaulting on the country's financial obligations is so distasteful, opposition goes across party lines, with business groups, including the traditionally conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce, strongly calling for the debt ceiling to be raised.

How does someone like Rep. Paul Ryan justify voting for the budget but against raising the debt ceiling? It has to be explanation No. 2, which means he is taking you, me and all of his constituents hostage to get what he wants. How is that responsible governing? It's not.

That is the difference between the Tea Party and traditional conservatives and Republicans: The John Boehners and U.S. Chamber of Commerces of the country know that raising the debt ceiling is not ideological, it's governing. The place to fight over deficits and taxes is the budget process, not after those decisions have already been made in legislation that is passed and signed. It's common sense, especially to any business person, that if you contract to pay certain bills, you have to pay them.

But, again, 201 Republicans voted against the clean bill, while 28 GOP members voted for it. Who is the fringe and who is the mainstream of the party?

What this vote demonstrates, most of all, is how off the rails the modern Republican Party has run, especially in the House. I'm tired of hearing about a battle for the Republican party between mainstream business interests and the Tea Party. The battle is over and the Tea Party has won, at least in Congress (and probably beyond, but that is a topic for another post). And the final score was 201-28, a pasting worse than the one the Broncos suffered in the Super Bowl.