You might recall that Republicans were more-sullen about the New Year’s Day tax increase deal than Democrats, and a majority of House Republicans (as well as the few Conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats) were the prime holdouts in the widely-supported bipartisan New Year’s Day compromise. But neither the sullenness nor the recalcitrance of dozens of House Republicans indicates who is down and who is up, as there are dozens of House Republicans for which expressions of sullenness and legislative recalcitrance have long been preferred to the challenge of, you know, legislating. (Politicians who say they are going to “clean up” government often find that, in spite of their best efforts not to participate in any of its normal operations, they somehow fail to seize complete control of it just by virtue of getting a seat in a legislature.) Of course, the general Tea Party policy goal–specifically, balancing the Federal Budget entirely through spending cuts–wasn’t really possible to begin with.
President Obama and most of the Senate called the tax increase agreement that ended the fiscal cliff standoff a success. The irony of that round of Congressional brinksmanship is that it all but left the Senate as a whole adversarial towards House Conservatives. This time the notion that Conservative Republicans in the House were standing in the way of a broad consensus in the Senate hit with such force it was as if the conflict between House ideologues and Senate pragmatists were a novelty.
This contrast is the farthest thing from a novelty, but that the Senate should be the source of viable legislation (passed by massive majorities) while the House is an ongoing source of frustration for its inability to work with the other chamber is indeed unusual.
The contrast between the zealous Congressmen of the House of Representatives and pragmatic Senators in the US Senate is structural, 1 of the anti-majoritarian provisions the Founding Fathers deliberately included in the Constitution; in a well-known story Thomas Jefferson supposedly asked General Washington why the Constitutional Convention agreed to a bicameral legislature. “Why are you pouring that coffee out into your saucer?” the elder statesman asked him.
“To cool it,” the politically-hotheaded but scientifically-astute Jefferson replied.
“Well, that’s why we’ll send legislation to the Senate,” General Washington concluded. “To cool it.”
But for all the frustration expressed in recent calls to scrap the filibuster, it is the slower-moving Senate that, by requiring consensus in legislation, actually gives it a chance to become law today. Act. When the Senate reaches an agreement, President Obama and House Republican leaders know they have found the most politically-plausible legislative midpoint between them.
What is different now is that, with our current divided government and hyperpartisanship, the anti-majoritarian Senate, in 2010 known as “the place progressive legislation goes to die,” was recast as the place where durable compromises could be forged. Remember, for his long pursuit of an agreement with President Obama through his more-populous and clamorous legislative chamber, it was not House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)–previously more openly-hostile towards President Obama–who worked-out both the 2011 Budget Control Act and the New Year’s Day fiscal cliff deal with Vice President Joe Biden.
But where do the 2 parties stand right now? With Republicans securely in control of the House but isolated and unpopular, Democrats in control of the Senate but vulnerable to filibuster, and President Obama securely re-elected but term-limited, who has the political initiative and how durable is it?
Everyone agrees that President Obama commands the agenda right now. His approval ratings surpass his party’s in Congress and far exceed the Republicans’ in Congress. Congressional Republicans face a widely-publicized catch-22: President Obama’s substantive positions on the issues under debate–immigration reform, gun control, tax and spending levels and Federal deficit-reduction–range from having majority support to being hugely-popular. In some cases public sentiment on these issues may be enduring, while in others it may prove malleable or even fickle. In some cases House Republicans have the means to stall-out the President’s agenda until the public moves on–indeed, many of them represent remote rural Congressional Districts where this is what self-professed Conservatives want them to do. But House Republicans can’t stall the President (and the now consensus-prone Senate) out without reinforcing their well-earned reputation for obstruction and incapacity to govern. Bad political decisions in the past become the sufficient cause of bad political decisions in the future: Have Republicans tracked into an un-navigable mire where some members are punished in 2014 by Republican primary-voters for compromising, while other members are punished in 2014 in the Midterm Elections for holding-out?
Actually, we can see the outline of House Republicans muddling-through in a way that works for them. 1st of all, unless the Democrats manage to recruit some very-electable Conservative Democrats in some Southern and Midwestern Congressional Districts (which in fairness is what they did in 2006 and 2008), House Republicans need to be far more-afraid of competitive primaries than of being unseated by Democrats in a wave election. It’s generally-known that Midterm Elections are hard to nationalize unless it’s in reaction to ideological overreach by the President (which of course is the story of the 1994, 2006, and 2010 Midterm waves). While Republicans did lose a lot of Districts they wouldn’t normally lose in 2006 and 2008, that was because of the major foreign policy failures, corruption, ideological drift and eventual economic collapse either facilitated or missed by the George W. Bush Administration. Today House Republicans are unable to act on all their ideological passions and turn some of the public’s attention on the actions of the Obama Administration. So, by 2014 Republicans will have to worry less about being charged with obstructing the President and more about continuing to stand for Conservative principles in ways the public can take seriously.
Hint: Refusing to raise the Federal debt limit and thereby flirting with another financial crash will not work, nor will trying to hold disaster relief money hostage as House Republicans embarrassingly attempted after Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. (That last attempt to nickel-and-dime disaster relief provoked expressions of outrage from Republican Congressmen Peter King of New York and Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey–as well as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is still considered Republican Presidential material.)
The faster Republicans can roll over on immigration reform (and they are rolling over on it impressively quick thus far), the better; they seem on-track to claim policy concessions like increased border security. This will alienate some Conservatives, but party leaders have been saying that the demographic writing is on the wall on this issue for some time. Some have rightly noted that (unlike Charles Krauthammer’s rather-simplistic recommendation) Republicans can’t just pass Liberal immigration reform and win-over Hispanics in large numbers, but this is a big outstanding issue that has been at an impasse after almost 6 years of push for reform. It’s time Republicans stopped making the political the enemy of the humane and moved-on.
Whatever the conventional wisdom may be, the debate over gun control poses fewer risks (and more variability in outcome) for Republicans. This is part of the reason why I reject the assertion that President Obama has raised the issue of gun control simply for political gain: While Congressional Republicans are playing a defensive game on gun control, I still think it’s an easy defensive game for them to play. I think the strategic picture gets a little harder for them at the State level, where Democratic governments in Blue States seem quite prepared to pass new gun control legislation and existing “stand-your-ground,” guns in bars and schools provisions, and even concealed-carry permit States have been implicated in some shameful episodes and higher overall rates of gun crimes. Republicans who have pursued regulatory anarchy with regards to guns at the State level in recent years have created a political vulnerability for themselves in some places.
This doesn’t mean Congressional Republicans will be able to oppose any and all gun control without consequence. Right now information obtained through background checks is destroyed, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms isn’t able to keep electronic records of guns used in the commission of crimes. This is generally because of legislative manipulation by Congressional Republicans. But if the Democrats attempt to ban the AR-15 rifle, the Republicans may have their counterattack.
I count over a dozen close Congressional Districts and 4 Senate seats (AK, NC, SD, WV) nationwide where the vote has been sufficiently-close or approval ratings sufficiently-volatile that the Democrats defending those seats should consider a vote for gun control legislation politically perilous. (I could list as many as 4 more Senators, but I actually think the power of the NRA is a bit hyped.) This isn’t to say that greater oversight of gun sales and restriction of certain weapons modifications is dead on arrival in Congress, but I frankly agree with those who expect a renewal of the assault weapons ban won’t be possible.
Then there is government spending. This is an issue where Republicans’ policy path is relatively straightforward, but its political path is not. The Republicans are not going to back down from their call for a limited Federal Government, but they seem disinclined to politicize the Federal debt limit again. Still, there will be no shortage of opportunities for them to call for lower Federal spending. It isn’t clear at all at this time who has the political advantage on this issue: Democrats have the political advantage in arguing their case for higher taxes on the rich and in opposing Federal spending cuts in particular, while Republicans have the political advantage in calling for overall deficit-reduction and in favoring Federal spending cuts as general policy.
A testament to the stickiness of this issue, a new poll finds the public evenly-divided over whether to pursue deficit-reduction through a combination of tax increases and Federal spending cuts, or through Federal spending cuts alone. Oddly, this poll finds that upper-middle-class and wealthier voters as a whole favor a combination of tax increases and spending cuts nearly 3:2, while a majority of middle-class and working-class survey respondents said they favored spending cuts alone. So, the people whose taxes are most likely to face further increase generally support some tax increases, while people who are more likely to be directly-affected by budget cuts apparently prefer budget cuts alone. In any case, Congressional Republicans were right: As long as they confine the fight to one over Federal spending cuts and leave things like the Federal debt limit or a tax increase deadline out of it, they have a political opportunity.
This is why House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), Governor Romney’s 2012 running mate, has quietly re-emerged with enhanced stature. Seemingly overtaking both House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) as his party’s unofficial spokesman, Congressman Ryan recently said Republicans should work with the Democrats on immigration reform and called for closing the gun show loophole (while still expressing skepticism towards an assault weapons ban)–and yet still doubled-down on Federal spending, arguing that the sequester’s spending cuts are likely to happen and that “the President got his additional revenues,” apparently ruling-out further tax increases. So, House Republicans have a plan and a point man; let’s see if they can stick to both.