1. Opinion

Column: On debt and taxes, conservatives can win

In a Gallup poll released in the middle of the government shutdown, the American people gave Congress a historically low approval rating of 11 percent. Surprised?

The last few weeks have been a microcosm of the last several years, where both parties have failed to work together and address the big issues — namely, our debt crisis and unsustainable entitlements. These failures boiled over in the form of a two-week shutdown and near-default on our debt that showed our constituents just how broken Washington is.

I often point to the tax reform of the 1980s and the welfare reform and balanced budgets of the 1990s as evidence that a divided government is the chance to accomplish big things. I have held out hope that President Barack Obama and leaders in Congress would work out an agreement to address our skyrocketing national debt. I have joined with members of both parties to push for a grand bargain that would fix our broken tax code and save our entitlement programs — Social Security and Medicare — for future generations.

Unfortunately, neither this president nor this Congress has shown that leadership. My party was not without fault. A handful of misguided senators and representatives insisted that no government funding bill include funds for Obamacare. Let me clear: I oppose Obamacare as strongly as any member of Congress. I have voted repeatedly to repeal it. However, the strategy of tying Obamacare spending to the continuing resolution (CR) needed to fund the government was doomed to fail for several reasons:

• First, most Obamacare spending is mandatory and not subject to the CR. Even if the Senate passed and the president signed a CR defunding Obamacare, guess what? Most Obamacare spending would have continued. In fact, all Obamacare spending continued throughout the shutdown.

• Second, Obama and the Democratic Senate will not approve a bill that defunds Obamacare. I'm not giving up; I'm accepting reality. Our best chance to repeal Obamacare was in November 2012. Our next best chance is November 2016.

• Third, and most important, the losing battle over defunding Obamacare distracted us from the biggest crisis our country faces — the national debt. Unlike trying to defund Obamacare in the CR, a fight to tie spending reforms to a debt ceiling increase was a fight we could have won. We could have insisted on long-term tax and entitlement reform. We could have worked for a bipartisan deal that closed tax loopholes in exchange for the kinds of reforms to Medicare and Social Security proposed in the nonpartisan Simpson-Bowles plan, like means-testing. Unfortunately, we fought the wrong one of two battles and lost both — badly.

The bill that eventually passed was essentially the "clean" CR and debt ceiling increase that the president had requested all along. It included no meaningful changes to Obamacare and no serious steps to address our debt.

At the end of the shutdown, we achieved none of the policy goals that are important to conservatives like me, and we suffered severe — and largely self-inflicted — political consequences. Everyone knew we would get blamed, and we did — to the tune of an all-time low approval rating for the Republican Party. This was entirely avoidable had our party's leadership not followed those who falsely claimed that we could somehow defund Obamacare through the CR, and instead focused on achieving meaningful deficit reduction.

(By the way, there's a better way to repeal this law that's already driving up premiums, costing us jobs, and forcing people to lose the plans and doctors they like: Do nothing. No delays, no exemptions. If Obamacare is as bad as we believe it is, it will collapse under its own weight, as the exchange website rollout has confirmed. Faced with the full force of Obamacare with no delays and no fixes, the American people will hate it. They'll vote for a Senate and president who pledge to repeal it.)

To my fellow conservative colleagues, to the outside conservative groups who have been running political ads on these issues, and most important, to the conservative voters in my district across the country, I implore you: We have a chance to do something big for the future of this country. Let's not squander it by fighting amongst ourselves about the best strategy to repeal a law we all agree is terrible. Instead, please join me in working to reduce our national debt. Please insist on tying real tax code and entitlement reforms to any effort to increase the debt limit, so we can address the long-term drivers of our debt crisis.

This is the most important battle we face. It's the battle we can win, and it's the battle worth fighting.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, represents Florida's 17th district, which includes part of Hillsborough County, and serves on the House Intelligence and Appropriations committees. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.