Sire! The Conservatives Are Revolting!

Thursday’s New York Times revealed the limits of Congressional Republicans’ capacity for legislative organization.  So far, House Republicans have passed 2 major bills and lost 2 major bills: The Health Care Reform repeal that predictably went nowhere in the Senate was passed on January 19th, and a bill eliminating public financing of Presidential campaigns was passed on January 26th; then last Tuesday, February 8th, the Republicans lost a vote to temporarily extend expiring provisions of the massive and controversial USA PATRIOT Act without a floor debate by failing to win a supermajority, and last Wednesday, the 9th, a bill to demand repayment of just over $179 million that House Republicans deemed the US Government overpaid to the United Nations in 2009 also failed to win a supermajority.  So, to date the House of Representatives of the 112th Congress has ended Federal matching funds for Presidential elections and effectively called for greater scrutiny of the PATRIOT Act.  The latter attempt at a quick renewal failed by a margin of 6 votes, with 26 mostly-Conservative Republicans defecting.

Though the 112th Congress just met, this is not a portentious start considering all the measures the House Republican leadership proposed in their 2010 “Pledge to America.”  The Federal budget is where this might really come to a head.  Reflecting its usual penchant for the conceptual scoop, the Times article focused on what its author saw as the profound increase in the opposition’s difficulties: “The fraying of party unity, if not of a scale or intensity that imperils Mr. Boehner’s ability to advance the main elements of his agenda, nonetheless stood in sharp contrast to the record of Republicans in remaining remarkably united against President Obama and the Democrats over the past two years.”  It’s early yet, and Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Republican Conference Chair Jeb Hensarling (who was deeply-involved in the House Republicans’ 2010 midterm campaign strategy) and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Paul Ryan may yet succeed in disciplining this majority.  The article also mentioned that the House GOP leadership tried to expedite some bills for passage even though it required a supermajority because they believed those votes would be non-controversial.  For now, the Speaker has been letting a thousand flowers bloom among the ranks; these upsets may compel him to change his managerial style.

But regarding the Federal budget vote, right now, there’s no stopping the Conservatives.  On Friday the House leadership relented to Conservatives who objected to a Republican budget that prorated the budget cuts to the 5 1/2 months of the current fiscal year that will have lapsed by early March, as well as allowed cuts to the Pentagon budget to make up some of the difference.  Among cuts outlined in the Washington Post report are over $1 billion cut from certain items intended to implement the President’s Health Care Reform, about 30% of the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget, and yes, the complete elimination of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

There is a real risk that, if left to their own devices the House Conservatives could really screw themselves over with their insistence on $100 billion in domestic discretionary spending cuts, now.  True, the “Pledge to America” promised budget cuts of that size to the annual Federal budget.  The fiscal year started on October 1st, and usually Congress would pass a budget that would last through next September 30th…What actually transpired last year, however, was that the Republicans during the lame-duck session approved a budget for the rest of this fiscal year that would keep spending at current levels, which was what the President’s preference.  Then Tea Party activists started calling the Republicans hypocrites for supporting current Federal spending levels, and the Republicans reneged, blocking passage of the budget in the Senate!  Congressional Republicans agreed to a continuing resolution for funding the Federal Government only through March.  So, some time before March 4th, a majority of Representatives, 60 Senators and President Obama have to agree on a budget to fund the Federal Government through September 30th.  To properly pro-rate the budget cuts the Republicans were proposing, the House Republican leadership called for about $50 billion in budget cuts, and even subtracted the President’s roughly-$16 billion in Defense Department cuts into that, thus bringing the amount they were cutting from Federal programs for this year to under $40 billion.  Then the Tea Partiers in the House (and the larger conservative Republican Study Committee) revolted and refused to pass that budget.  They are calling for $100 billion in Federal budget cuts now.  They’re upholding the number on paper against the scale of budget cuts the number is actually intended to mean in the House Republican leaders’ “Pledge.”  So now House Speaker John Boehner is confronted with an ugly choice: Either try to pass a budget with most of the Democrats and try to weather a challenge by conservatives, or give in to Republican demands for a budget that faces an uphill battle in the Senate, let-alone on President Obama’s desk, and of being stuck with either a Democratic-passed budget (in the context of a huge Republican House majority) or a government shutdown.  There is no reason to expect a government shutdown today to go down differently than it did in spring 1995: The President has the means to speak out on behalf of (hypothetically-suspended) Federal programs and the House Republicans trying to force budget cuts have no real medium or message to justify the government shutdown.  House Republicans would probably be forced to relent, their reputation damaged both with their base and independents; Democrats would be energized by the threatening spectacle.

John Boehner commands 242 Republican seats in the 435-seat House of Representatives.  He won this majority in a historic 63-seat swing to the Republicans, having produced his “Pledge to America” as a promise to set Federal budgetary and regulatory policy from the right.  What he wants (and what House Speakers can almost always count on) is for near-all of his fellow-partisans to vote with him, whatever the Democrats decide to do about it.  If he can’t manage that, it’s an embarrassment.  The Republican Party, to be frank, is the party of common-cause posturing–until the Tea Party revolt it was the party of Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Never insult a fellow Republican.”  It is more of a problem for them if they can’t pull together.  We Democrats are a permanent coalition of contentious but not lost causes; we’re practically expected to quarrel amongst ourselves.  If Speaker Boehner turns to the Democrats to pass a budget, it inevitably makes him look weak–to the President with whom he must contend over legislation, and definitely to the House Republican Caucus who made him Speaker.

So far, the party leadership can’t explain to the relative political neophytes of the freshman class why not all their budget cuts have to be passed this year, or why they needn’t be found in popular programs.  That’s what we’re looking at.  There is no master plan behind this, and it wasn’t to Republicans’ advantage to delay setting a budget like this.  The Liberal Ironist thinks John Boehner has been underestimated up to now, but no amount of cleverness will overcome a legion of righteous activists intoxicated by recent (and unrepresentative) victories.

Today the President will introduce substantial program cuts in his own budget; this will give us maximum and minimum parameters for the scope of the Federal Government.  Once this document is out, the ball will be back in the House Republicans’ court, if they can do anything with it.


8 thoughts on “Sire! The Conservatives Are Revolting!

    1. liberalironist Post author

      Well, sure, you and a lot of people. I can’t give you assurances that it won’t happen, but I suspect the brunt of criticism would fall on the Republicans. Of course, that has no bearing on what could in effect be a disaster, but therefore all that criticism.

      1. J-Doug

        Nate Silver, among others, seem to assume that a budget shutdown will hurt the GOP more than the president. They cite the Gingrich-Clinton showdown, and the political fall-out, as an example.

        I fear this is far too simplistic. The GOP didn’t “lose” because they came across as obstructionist, they lost because Clinton out-played Gingrich and successfully framed the House and Senate GOP as obstructionist. President Clinton won, both in perception and outcome, because his spin machine got out ahead of the issue and framed it first, and because in the end it hardly gave up anything.

        Obama has shown far less success in framing economic and financial issues, and a far greater willingness to compromise, than Clinton did during the government shutdown episode. If Obama is really going to “win,” he better not rely on the public automatically reviling the House GOP.

      2. liberalironist Post author

        In response to J-Doug’s reply to my reply:

        I don’t think that the expectation that a government shutdown would hurt the Republicans more than the President is simplistic; I think you’re overlooking assumed agency. I am not saying that the institution of the Presidency confers some automatic legitimacy and authority to the President’s position. (That’s certainly implausible after the historic 2010 midterms, in which you could say Barack Obama was punished for his peculiar virtues.) I am saying the structure of the Federal Government as it is *favors Executive agency.*

        Put differently, the President can make more-extensive and effective use of the bully pulpit; *of course* that statement assumes he will actually *use* it! To date “Obama has shown far less success in framing economic and financial issues” in part because he hasn’t put enough effort into it. You know I have already said that a lack of sufficient attention to economic policy, particularly a larger stimulus as well as policies designed to reduce unemployment and to address ongoing mortgage defaults, are the real reason for the Democrats’ massive defeat in the 2010 elections. The President has definitely gotten the message that he will be judged for the remainder of his Presidency on the strength of the economy.

        I also think you shouldn’t assume that the President will take the same tack with a large opposition House majority that is on the offensive against programs he cares about that he did while proposing a new entitlement with a massive Democratic Congressional majority and no real of shaking off Republican criticism.

        Aside from all that, I just don’t think the President is as naive as your concerns suggest.

  1. J-Doug

    Today the President will introduce substantial program cuts in his own budget; this will give us maximum and minimum parameters for the scope of the Federal Government.

    One hopes that he’s trying to position this as a counter-offer and not yet another compromise without any deal in place, a tactic that he used too often in his first term with little if any success.

    1. liberalironist Post author

      To propose a budget with spending cuts in it is the President’s dominant strategy–the best opening move for him regardless of how the House Republicans choose to respond:

      1st of all, the idea that no budget cuts have to happen when Congressional Republicans face a Democratic President after winning their largest House majority since becoming a programmatic party is totally unrealistic.

      2nd, by proposing budget cuts with Republicans anxious to identify programs to cut in what is turning out not to be a “target-rich environment,” the President takes the initiative, proposing the cuts he is relatively-willing to live with, or that he thinks won’t undermine the integrated priorities he set in the recent State of the Union Address.

      3rd, I’m actually pessimistic about the prospects for a budget agreement between the President and House Republicans to stave-off a Federal Government shutdown. I’m pessimistic neither because of the President nor the House Republican leadership, both of whom revealed a willingness to budge in the past week, but because of the intransigence of the Tea Partiers and the larger Republican Study Committee (hence the title of this entry). Even so, I still think the President’s best tack to propose some budget cuts for the preceding 2 reasons, and because to win big confrontations in a divided government you have to be able to “out-reasonable” the other side. That doesn’t mean you move as far to their position as you can; it means you take meaningful actions to render opposition criticisms obsolete–provided you can do that without abandoning core political objectives. The New York Times’ current editorial essentially frames the President’s budget proposal the way he reasonably could, as representing *too much* of a sacrifice:

      If President Obama just stands on Liberal principle in the coming budget fight, he will still be 25 votes short of being able to pass a vote on party lines assuming total party discipline from House Democrats (which we can’t assume, considering 3 House Democrats voted to repeal the Health Care Reform). To “take a stand” as Paul Krugman called for last fall is the posture in which he is least-likely to win the argument during a government shutdown, because the Republicans will just say he “hasn’t got the message from the American people,” and polls would probably show majority agreement.

      Regarding the President’s proclivity to “compromise without any deal in place,” that apparent tactic hit pay dirt last December with just about the best lame-duck session in American history. Sure, the Federal deficit is reaching nightmare levels, but by conceding to the Republicans on their primary issue (which is tax cuts for the rich, for some reason), he was able to complete most of his 1st term agenda before the Republican takeover of the House.

      If you’re referring to the health care bill (which is the only other issue on which I think such a criticism is valid and the only one where I really find it plausible), remember that the President had to allay fears from conservative Democrats anyway, and while the accommodation of varied Republican concerns about the bill obviously didn’t result in any Republican support, the value that Republican support would have had on this issue was ironically demonstrated by the extent to which the Republicans mobilized their base on this issue. (In short, you’re arguing “The President should have gone for broke over Health Care Reform,” a strategy which is debatable but which I would call unavailable to him now that he has lost his majority.) If you really think President Obama is naive or weak-kneed, I ask you to consider that the Senate version of the bill had to make generous patronage giveaways to Senator Ben Nelson to secure his 60th vote, that the House had to pass the Senate version of the Health Care Reform through reconciliation to evade a filibuster of the conferenced version of the bill, and that the President had to issue a signing statement prohibiting the use of Federal health care funding to cover abortions–to satisfy the concerns of a critical bloc of conservative Democrats! I think that the difficulty of passing Health Care Reform just on party lines both demonstrates that the narrative of our naive President pointlessly appeasing the Republicans is a myth that overlooks dissension within the now-lost Democratic House majority, and that the President is capable of embracing the Machiavellian maxim that the ends justifies the means when the ends are laws that enshrine social justice. If those laws are not only compromised but flawed, they can be modified once the infrastructure is in place.

      Besides all that, the Republicans have a substantial majority in the House of Representatives, and as I discussed in a previous post, Congressional redistricting isn’t looking good for us at all. If the President deliberately alienates the House Republican leadership, it would be naive of him to expect to pass a bill in the House again.

  2. Pingback: The Prospect of a Government Shutdown is Now Very Real | The Liberal Ironist

  3. Pingback: So…If I Was Right the *First* Time About an Impending Government Shutdown, I Think I Know Why… | The Liberal Ironist

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