The House Republican Leadership Can’t Control Its Caucus

This is not an exaggeration, nor do I think I’m jumping to a conclusion.

An upset that warrants lasting scrutiny transpired last night: The House Republican leadership brought a continuing resolution to temporarily maintain the Federal budget to the floor of the House, in order to tide discretionary government operations over pending a final bill with spending cuts.  This bill failed 195-230.

48 Republicans voted against their Caucus’ continuing resolution.  While 182 Democrats voted against the continuing resolution out of a belief that its budget cuts go too far and its $3.65 billion allocation for Hurricane Irene disaster relief is too small, the 48 Republicans joined them in a belief that the continuing resolution does not cut Federal spending deeply-enough.  195 Congressmen, including 6 Democrats–about 45% of the House–though the continuing resolution was just right.

The House Republican leadership could probably propose further spending cuts and pick up the several-dozen Republican holdouts without dividing their caucus, but Senate Democrats would never support such a bill, and President Obama is practically being pushed into confrontation with the House Republicans at this point.  Unless Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor can persuade about half of the Republican holdouts to support the continuing resolution or cut a deal with House Democrats (!), the Federal Government will go into shutdown on September 30th.

Yes, after Senate Republicans filibustered Federal health assistance for chronically ill 9/11 rescue workers to extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich, we nearly entered a government shutdown this spring, and the Federal Government almost failed to pay half its bills in an unprecedented breakdown of ordinary operations this summer, we are 9 days away from an unanticipated Federal Government shutdown precipitated not by a confrontation between House Republicans and President Obama but the inability of the Speaker of the House to persuade all of the Tea Partiers to participate in governing.

I didn’t make enough of Speaker Boehner’s inability to deliver his caucus for his preferred version of the debt limit compromise in late-July of this year.  His failure to pass a preferred plan for 10-year budget cuts on the volume of his own caucus forced him to make a deal on terms more to Democrats’ liking.  Among the concessions he had to make:

1.) Out of $917 billion in initial discretionary spending cuts, 45% will come from Defense spending, and much of the rest is expected to come out of the Department of Agriculture (though this is subject to budget process).  These are the great repositories of the “secret socialism” of rural Republicans from resource-poor Congressional Districts.

2.) In all but name, President Obama got a debt limit increase that will last until spring 2013.

3.) If the new Congressional “Super-Committee” fails to recommend at least $1.2 trillion in Federal deficit reduction by November 23rd of this year, mandatory spending cuts will kick in–$600 billion more from the Department of Defense and $600 billion from Medicare payments to hospitals and clinics–but not beneficiaries.

In short, to rule-out any tax increases, Republicans had to open themselves to a minimum of half of all spending cuts coming from their own priorities, leave the social safety net untouched (depending on Committee recommendations but subject to Presidential veto), get about $1 trillion less in 10-year spending cuts than President Obama was offering them, and turn in their cards on this fight until 2013.  In addition to the policy concessions, the public clearly judged the Republicans the belligerents in this confrontation.

66 Republicans still voted against the final deal to raise the debt limit–on August 1st, at which point time was up.  If scores of Democrats hadn’t supported the deal to raise the debt limit, the Federal Government would have been unable to pay a fairly-randomized 1/2 of its bills, and the public would have judged Congressional Republicans responsible.

I have both a contemporaneous observation and a speculative prognostication to offer in response to these developments.  The aforementioned observation: The House Republican leadership simply cannot control the “Tea Party” Conservatives in their caucus.  I’d previously speculatted that the Tea Partiers among House Republicans had been brought to heel during budget negotiations between President Obama and the House Republican leadership in March and early-April; this (tentative) conclusion turned out to be wrong.  In that mid-April entry I also raised the question of whether the Republican Party was in trouble or the Speaker of the House would face a leadership challenge.  My speculative prognostication looks sideways at both of those questions: In its recent remaking through an ideological grassroots movement, the Republican Party has ironically lost its fabled unity.  The era of Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, “Never insult another Republican,” is gone.  Actually, it’s been gone for years, as Conservatives have thrown around the RINO–Republican In Name Only–epithet any time a party member showed some independence; the real change is that Republicans aren’t ashamed of such ideological policing now.

This brings me to an important point: Ideological policing is evidence of the insecurity of an ideology, not its vitality and popularity.  From Evangelical localists to old-school Libertarians, a motley crew of different activists of limited government rallied to support the Republican Party in 2010, correctly concluding that the most-effective means of stopping and reversing President Obama’s activist agenda for the Federal Government was to take over the infrastructure of the Republican Party through the Democratic process.  Some of those limited-government factions were happy simply to pull the existing Republican Party to the right on economic policy and to disavow the “big-government Conservatism” of the George W. Bush years; Libertarians and an unspecified but probably-small proportion of the humiliated Christian Right wanted to replace the Republican Party platform with its own dogma.  It’s clear that George W. Bush’s attempt to remake the Republican Party through “Compassionate Conservatism” has failed; W. Bush’s ambitions for his party produced blowback from the base in part because its electoral strategy of massive tax cuts and massive new Federal programs was fiscally irresponsible, but also because rank-and-file Republicans never really wanted it.  Instead, they sat out the 2006 and 2008 elections in large numbers, concluding the Republican Party had betrayed its principles.  The Town Hall protests of 2009, in which Conservative activists heckled Congressmen discussing the state of negotiations over Health Care Reform, afforded many Republicans and instinctual Conservatives a rallying-point, something to get excited over.  The 2009 and 2010 elections, of course, brought many pro-business and limited-government Republicans into power throughout State governments, in the House of Representatives, and to a lesser extent in the US Senate.  The intensity of the Conservative agenda varies by State, being comparatively-pragmatic in Virginia while at times hard to defend even in principle in Florida.  But for the most part, Republicans seem to have unified around diverse Conservative agendas within the States.  Disputes such as have developed between Ohio’s new Governor John Kasich and the State’s new Republican legislative majority have been rare.

But in retrospect, the aberrant statements by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) is definitely the result of this cleft of several dozen House members–enough that without their support the 242-seat Republican House majority cannot function–which won’t compromise their goals for spending reductions no matter what it does to the Republican Party.

Fareed Zakaria recently made a perceptive observation: The Republican Party is undergoing the same transformation that the Democratic Party underwent exactly 40 years ago–specifically, the democratization of its primary process.  In 1972 the upshot for the Democrats was the nomination of Senator George McGovern (D-SD), hero of World War II, history professor, former Congressman, Senator…and the worst Democratic candidate in Presidential politics in the modern era, period.  My point isn’t to say that Texas Governor Rick Perry is un-electable–the Liberal Ironist thinks he is quite electable in spite of his own objections–but that any opening of a party franchise to the masses is attended by demand for ideological performance at the expense of practical suitability to govern.

Where were we?  Right, yesterday the House Republican leadership, notorious for their party discipline and aggressive negotiating style, saw 48 Republicans vote against the temporary budget resolution they’d said was needed to provide disaster relief and avert a government shutdown.  While we’re on the subject, 5 Republicans, including feckless presidential hopefuls Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann, simply didn’t turn out for the vote. Without those 53 votes, the House Republican Caucus stands at 189 members, just 10 more than they had in the 111th Congress last year.

Many pundits have speculated that House Republicans have made a strategy of denying President Obama any victories in an effort to weaken him for the 2012 Presidential Election.  While certainly plausible on the evidence, the problem with this theory is that it assumes House Republicans want to make a strategy of having virtually nothing to show for the 112th Congress.  Failing to govern and then blaming the President and asking for more power might be a way to turn out the base, but the electorate will likely be 50% larger in 2012 than in 2010; such a political tack would be risky bordering on foolish (at least were it not for the stalled economic recovery and President Obama’s attendant poor polling).

The Liberal Ironist now subscribes to an alternate theory: The Tea Party is not an “astroturf” movement controlled by its rich supporters, and it is not just a hyped-up old Republican Party.  The House Republican leadership team have failed to discipline the Tea Party faction.  As a consequence we are now a little over a week away from a Federal Government shutdown that has nothing to do with President Obama or the Democrats.

It isn’t Congress that’s dysfunctional, it’s the House Republican Caucus.  Welcome to a Republican Party that’s been made new by its constituents.


2 thoughts on “The House Republican Leadership Can’t Control Its Caucus

  1. Kukri

    Things looked tentatively OK as far as the federal budget was going, until last week the president put forth a jobs plan and a fiscal plan that were immediately shot down by many in the GOP. That’s when things started turning bad. Yesterday’s vote just about put us on the abyss. I read that Congress isn’t even in session this coming week, so we’ll hit the deadline.
    The 2011 budget was six months late, we almost defaulted on our debt in August, and now the 2012 budget will be late, for some amount of time.

    What’s really troubling is that some of the cuts radical Republicans raised yesterday are in direct violation of the August debt agreement *they just signed.*

    1. liberalironist Post author

      On your last point, I can only assume they enjoy assuming they have leverage when they try to extract a concession by force, then subsequently finding-out whether that belief was justified.


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