So…If I Was Right the *First* Time About an Impending Government Shutdown, I Think I Know Why…

They both seem like mild men, considering they cast such long shadows. Photo courtesy of REUTERS.

Back in the middle of February I predicted budgetary doom: After declaring success in reaching a deal for about $38 billion in cuts in Federal domestic discretionary spending (along with $15.6 billion in cuts to military spending offered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates), House Republican leaders faced rebellion in the ranks the following day.  This resulted in a new version of the budget in the House, one that implemented a total of $61 billion in spending cuts starting when the continuing resolutions temporarily paying for fiscal 2011 since October 1st ran out after March 4th.  To their credit, the Republicans allowed any House member from either party to propose amendments to the 2011 budget.  This was the first time the majority party in the House allowed open participation in budgeting since Newt Gingrich’s truculent leadership of the previous House Republican majority began in 1995; of course, House Republicans ended up proposing most of the successful amendments, but Democrats proposed some successful budget cuts and funding restorations, with the final budget bill amounting to a $60 billion cut for 2011.  At the same time, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) said the Senate wouldn’t debate its budget proposal until the first week of March–with temporary funding for the Federal Government running out on March 4th.  Things looked pretty bleak–but another continuing resolution was adopted for the next 3 weeks, and then another continuing resolution was adopted for the next 3 weeks.  Budget cuts to-date total to $10 billion, reducing the bargaining space for further cuts both numerically and substantively.

Anyway, the current continuing resolution funding the Federal Government runs out today, Friday, April 8th.

So, last Sunday the Liberal Ironist expressed some assurance that President Obama, the Senate Democratic leadership and the House Republican leadership would manage to pass a budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2011 and thereby avert a government shutdown.  This was based on confident statements by the President and Democrats…but later that day House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) disavowed the earlier insistence of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) that a deal for about $33 billion in total domestic spending cuts was at hand.  The Speaker insisted that this number had been put into his mouth, if that is the correct expression.

Does the Speaker think that this strict adherence to $60 billion in cuts to the Federal budget can and should succeed?  Frankly, I doubt it.  But that is what he calls for in public–yet that is not what President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Reid claim he is standing on when he rebuffs offers of a compromise in their private negotiations.  The New York Times repeated assertions by President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Reid that the sticking points were not over funding levels but a series of far-right budgetary priorities such as eliminating funding for family planning and abortions, greenhouse gas regulation by the EPA, Health Care Reform and financial reform.  But many of these measures were introduced to the House version of the budget when the Conservatives proposed a budget with deeper cuts–often as amendments by newer members, not leadership priorities.

Yesterday a friend with recent experience in American politics said “Boehner really is caught between a rock and a hard place.”  I think he is, too–but I also think the news reports, at least, tend to take his statements in response to events at face value, assuming that the Speaker of the House hasn’t been thinking about his situation between President Obama and his own caucus since the latter rebuffed his budget deal with the former 2 months ago.  At my most-conspiratorial, I suspect that the Speaker is more than OK with this confrontation backfiring on his party.  He cares about his party and wants it to succeed in the long run, of course, but I suspect that he suspects that the only way he will be able to tame his own caucus is if it is stunned by an impact with a brick wall.  Increasingly-negative polling indicating at least equal skepticism towards the Republicans over a shutdown of the Federal Government (and angry correspondence from constituents by whatever channels are still open) may convince some Tea Partiers (or at least most of the House Republican Caucus) that they have overestimated the strength of their mandate to reduce the size of the Federal Government.  In this event the Speaker could point to House Finance Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) ambitious long-term plan to reform Medicare and Medicaid along Cato Institute lines and say “This compromise isn’t the end of the fight, by any means,” and accept the Democrats’ suggested settlement on $33 billion in cuts to Federal domestic discretionary spending.  This would constitute a huge cut in Federal spending during a recession.  This would also constitute, in the Liberal Ironist’s view, an unwise rejection of a basic principle of Keynesian economics: Government should promote consumption during a recession by whatever means are effective.  However, such a settlement would also be tens of billions of dollars less in budget cuts than Boehner proposed in his party’s “Pledge to America.”


PAUL RYAN STEPS FORWARD: Ending the Bush-era turn away from such Conservative up-and-comers, the Republican Party has given Congressman Paul Ryan the opportunity to push a fairly-radical agenda to reduce the budget footprint of the Federal Government over the long term. That a photogenic but Conservative budget expert with a well-developed sense of fair play wasn't really a central voice in his party until the last election cycle indicates transitions in both leadership and ideas--as does the fact that he is able to propose large long-term spending cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. He represents the most meaningful link between the House Republican leadership and its Conservative rank-and-file.

As far as I can tell, several House Republican leaders are about to do something they really don’t want to do and probably don’t even think will work in order to hold their leadership positions.  They are doing this because the rank-and-file are unified-enough to lead them for the time being.  Of course, this reduces the value of holding those leadership positions, especially when members of your own caucus are taking funds for your pet projects as a scalp.

Maybe the Liberal Ironist has caught some Conservative party men in an ironic situation; or maybe this is about setting-up some freshman upstarts whom have had it too easy for a hard lesson about the World and the limits of earnest intentions.  I wouldn’t put that past the House Republican leadership, either–and what could be more-Conservative than that?

DON'T LET HIM FOOL YOU: John Boehner is not stupid. Success is not assured, but he does have a strategy for moving the President to the right and the Republican Study Committee to the left to pass a budget for the rest of the year. For now, he publicly pursues his party's $60 billion in spending cuts, probably points to his right flank in meetings with the President, and waits for the rank-and-file to get cold feet--all the while making a face like this now and then, lest someone suspect him of thinking (rather than as a Republican partisan a mere beleaguered parliamentarian) like a man trying to consolidate power.


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