Wednesday, October 6, 2010


I recommend Stan Collender's pessimistic column about budget politics next year, but it gets me thinking again about what a difficult position the Republican conference is going to be in during the 112th Congress if they at least win the House. 

It seems to me that Republicans could have three basic strategies.  One, working and compromising with the president to try to get as much of their agenda passed as possible, is presumably not even a plausible response for this batch of Republicans -- I assume everyone agrees on that, right?  Note that they basically did adopt that strategy (except for impeachment) in 1997-2000, but no, I don't think we'll see it.

The second strategy would be to go on offense: to try to get their agenda passed by streamrolling Barack Obama and the Democrats.  In other words, to imitate 1995.  The problem with this one is that it would be spectacularly unsuccessful, and those who remember 1995 know it.  Surely that includes John Boehner, who is almost certainly no fan of Newt Gingrich.  Depending on the size of their majority, it's not even clear that Republicans could agree on a budget on the floor of the House.  Even worse for them, if they can pass a Tea Party budget, it will almost certainly be stopped in Senate (best-case scenario 51 Republicans including Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins aren't going to try to shut down the Department of Education).  And in the highly unlikely chance that they do get agreement on a budget that could make the conservative base happy, they'll never get enacting legislation through WH vetoes.  The whole exercise would leave few if any substantive accomplishments, and plenty of ugly votes for the Democrats to sift through for the 2012 campaign.  Even worse, a veto fight produced by this strategy would yield a government shutdown, which might thrill Tea Partiers but would likely help Obama and produce Boehner-destroying chaos inside the Republican conference. 

The third strategy would be to forget about their agenda, and basically pretend they're still in opposition -- that is, to continue rejectionism.  Don't think 1995, or 1997-2000, but think more of 1993-1994.  Obviously, this works best if they don't actually take control of either House of Congress, or at the very least fall short in the Senate.  Still, they certainly could try it even if they have majorities in Congress.  They could (as Democrats did this year) not bother with a budget.  They would have to pass appropriations bills, but instead of using that process to really challenge the status quo, they would win some symbolic stuff, and fight carefully chosen fights on specific issues.  So they could actually eliminate earmarks and make a big show about including a statement of Constitutional legitimacy in all the bills they pass, giving them some victories to take home, and they could stage some losing votes on Tea Party priorities, preferably Constitutional amendments that they could all vote for without risking much.  Then, they could pass most of the appropriations bills without major veto-bait, but go ahead and maybe zero out some ACA funding and have a major fight over that one before surrendering, without the threat of a government shutdown hanging over everything.  Oh, and they could schedule votes all day long on cap-and-trade, and Obama's budget, and try to get Dems to take bad votes on them -- while fighting real fights over in the Senate on judicial and exec branch nominations.

Of course, each of these options would be accompanied by lots of investigations into Obama administration scandals (although actually going through with impeaching the president seems highly unlikely in the 112th Congress).

As I think you can tell, my guess is that Boehner would prefer option #3.  The question is whether he could get away with it without drawing the wrath of GOP activists, since it involves basically surrendering most of the non-symbolic GOP agenda without really fighting (and losing) for it.  I don't know the answer to that.  We do know that a whole lot of Republican Members of Congress are going to be paranoid about primary challenges, but how that plays out will depend on lots of things, beginning with just how many seats they actually hold after November. 


  1. Options #3 seems right to me. I keep thinking that taking the House & narrowly missing the Senate (which seems likely) is the worst strategic position for the Republicans. They can no longer simply oppose the Obama administration. They are going to have to govern somewhat. Yet without the Senate, the Republicans will have no real power to do anything. We will get a ton of investigations. I am curious to see how these play out. I imagine the public will tire of it quickly unless they find something really damaging. Then again, Fox News was in it's infancy during the Clinton years so who knows what 24 hr. a day coverage of Congressional investigations will mean.

    We live in interesting times.

  2. I, too, think #3 will be the eventual strategy. However, I think they'll come out of the gate with #2. What I think will be really interesting is to see how much nutjobs running for Prez '12 force them back into #3.

    Remember that 97-00 wasn't EXACTLY rolling over and playing dead. It was accepting the policies of compromise, while simultaneously sending Clinton a ton of veto bait to set up Bush in 2000. Death and marriage "taxes" come to mind.

  3. I agree with Jonathan and the similarly-named CTH above that #3 seems the best option for the Republican caucus - my reasoning: in the Tea Party era, Boehner and Co want to do everything in their power not to own the deficit.

    Sake of argument, let's say that deficits are caused by a million factors plus four main ones:

    1) Seniors are too expensive
    2) The military is too expensive
    3) Tax revenues are too low
    4) Economic growth is too low

    The first two represent sacred constituencies to the GOP, so its not realistic to assume the caucus putting the gears to those folks if in power. The third point represents an ideological pillar of the modern GOP. And the fourth one - no one knows for sure why economic growth is insufficient.

    For Boehner, cutting deficits means screwing with critical constituents or sacred ideological cows, assuming the magical pixie dust of robust economic growth isn't sprinkled on the economy soon.

    So Boehner, cornered by the Tea Party, won't want to endorse deficits. But supported by oldsters, the military, and tax haters, he also can't cut the deficit. He wants to stay as far away from ownership of that issue as he can get.

    If he isn't able to stay away, i.e. he's in power, it could be a fascinating time in US politics.

  4. The big question is- WHAT Republican agenda? As near as I can tell, there's only two things they really care about, and one of them (repealing Obamacare) is an absolute fantasy. They can maybe find some compromise on the other one (tax cuts), but besides it, I honestly think they don't care about actually DOING anything. They just want to have the nicer offices.

    And I wonder if not pushing an agenda actually matters anymore. Clearly successfully getting legislation passed doesn't help you, so I'm not sure that sitting on your ass will hurt anymore.

  5. Option #3 makes the most sense to me but a) what do I know? and b) I'm not going to be in the Republican caucus next session.

    The problem for Boehner (and McConnell) may well be all their new members. If the election results in Republicans picking up 40+ House seats and 5-8 Senate seats, then they're going to have a lot of new members---many of whom will have little idea of how to get things done under the Constitution and Congress' rules.

    I know someone who worked for the House of Representatives in the early 1990s. He had a conversation with a new Republican congressman in early 1995, in which the congressman was all excited that they were going to pass the Contract with America into law in the first 100 days. The new congressman did not know that Senate approval is also required to pass a law.

    So, while the 1997-2000 Republican caucus strategy may make more sense, the large freshman class may drive the Republicans into a repeat of 1995-96.

  6. CTH:

    We will get a ton of investigations. I am curious to see how these play out. I imagine the public will tire of it quickly unless they find something really damaging.

    I imagine it will have no impact on the public. Hardly anything is less interesting, or easier to ignore, than an investigation that doesn't find anything.

  7. David & CTH,

    No, you're not going to move a lot of votes with investigations, although you will keep partisans motivated (remember, even without hearings a lot of people believe that ACORN did nefarious things). But it does tend to suck time and energy out of the's a net loss for governing capacity.

  8. Of course if option #3 works (which it probably will). The Republicans will take the White House, House and Senate in 2012 which means that by 2016 the GOP might just implode. Lets hope they don't take the whole country down with them.

  9. Mike,

    Well, I don't know about that; as long as the economy rebounds and nothing too terrible happens in Afghanistan (or elsewhere), Obama would still be a solid favorite, IMO.

  10. I don't see why impeachment is automatically a non-starter.

    It represents the purest form of act-like-an-opposition-even-in-the majority.

    And there's no downside to it if you do it early enough. The House in '98 did it right on top of an election, actually pulling the trigger during a lame-duck session. They aren't obligated to make that mistake again.

  11. DXM,

    As regular readers know, I've though impeachment fairly likely given enough time with a Dem president/GOP House. I still think that's true. But as I said, I think getting there in the 112th Congress now seems unlikely. Remember, in the Clinton case the House did have the cover of Starr's formally objective report. For I'd say a year would be extremely fast to go from "no scandal" to scandal, independent counsel appointed, IC reports back to Congress. Not impossible, but it's hard for me to picture it happening in much less than a year, which puts a House vote no earlier than, say, December '11. In other words, if they want even the vague pretense of objectivity and the law, and assuming it makes little sense do it any later than spring '12 (at least until after the election) they're starting to run out of time.

    Could they do it without any cover of an IC? They *could*, but it would be even more damaging to them. Remember, we're talking about a purely symbolic impeachment to begin with, since we're talking about something with no chance of yielding a they really want that going into Obama's reelection campaign? I wouldn't think so. After reelection, sure, then it's very possible, but to make it their first thing out of the gate would be seriously nuts.

  12. I think any Republican majority returned in this environment will satisfy that last condition.

    These are not ordinary times.

  13. Of course they'll do #3. They'll pick and choose their battles, and the ones they do lose, they'll blame on "obstructionist Dems" and appeal to Tea Partiers to elect more Republicans so they can pass their agenda.


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