Thursday, May 19, 2011

Next Move?

A reader writes about new estimates on FY 2011 spending:
I've been seeing a lot of gloating from the left on the last spending deal turning out to represent a net rise in spending. But isn't this a repeated game? Maybe I'm just a nervous nellie, but this strikes me as something that significantly narrows the opening that any deal made in the next few weeks has to thread - and, alas, we seem to need such a deal somewhat soon. How much leash will his caucus give Boehner in the wake of it becoming clear that the more TPish members got snookered?
That's a good question, and I'm not sure I know the answer. But I'll take a crack at it...

On the one hand, I think there's an equilibrium available that involves GOP Members pretending that they're getting what they were elected to do (but which, in some forms, would get them in lots of trouble with the electorate if they really did it). That is: if you assume that spending cuts are popular in the abstract but specific cuts are unpopular, and that no one actually cares about the deficit, then the best plan for Members of Congress is to convince everyone that "cuts" have happened without, you know, actually cutting spending. The traditional way of doing that is to design and pass gimmicks that allow everyone to pretend that they've solved the problem. But phantom cuts should work just as well, as far as I can see.

On the other hand, there's also an incentive for loudmouth Members (and movement conservative media) to declare that anything that Boehner agrees to is not enough. After all, everybody hates Congress and is eager to believe the worst about them, and Boehner in particular is hardly a Tea Party hero.

The thing is, it's not clear to me that phantom spending cuts (if that's what happened here) change that calculus. That's because I'm assuming that the incentives for rogue Members and talk show hosts have nothing at all to do with actual spending levels or, even less likely, deficit levels. They have to do with broader incentives within movement conservative political culture -- they have to do with the way attention (and money) are given within the conservative network, and how people (customers?) there demand extremism for its own sake, not based on careful policy analysis.

So whatever Boehner does, he has to worry about dissent from the right. If that's the case, he has to spend a whole lot of time tending to it, but it really doesn't affect his decisions.

What would affect his decisions is if there are Members who honestly care, and really want, specific cuts. My guess, however, is that those are in the minority within the GOP conference. That's not to say that all Members of Congress are merely interested in reelection and don't care at all about policy, but that's not really what's at stake here; one way or another, the general policy direction is the same. But as far as the details are concerned, it sure seems to me that Boehner's solution, intended or not, should be one that keeps his conference relatively happy -- if it holds. That is, as long as it's plausible to pretend that they're slashing spending.


  1. I agree it's a combination of both. But one thing I've noticed is Boehner does not have as much influence as Tom Delay or Nancy Pelosi.

    Many GOP members are worried of facing Tea Party members in a primary. And, as you point out, Boehner isn't exactly their spokesman. It gives the GOP members less confidence in his ability to lead, combined with some unsatisfactory poll numbers on a number of policy issues, members of the GOP are looking out for themselves.

  2. But one wonders if Boehner has, either directly or indirectly, volunteered to take friendly fire on this stuff?

    By making it "the best we could do," TPers can launch their attacks at Boehner for being a RINO, while secretly being happy that they're not going to lose general election votes over the outcome. Of course, this presumes something rather odd: primary voters are easily swayed by bromides and promises, and general election voters care about actual outcomes. That just doesn't seem right. One could spin a story about primary voters buying that line, and general election voters just voting based on "better off than 4 years ago" (which not causing the entire economy to crash would go towards helping), but then it becomes wierd, because the credit would go to the presidents party......

    I've got to admit, I'm having trouble finding this equilibrium. The specific cuts may be unpopular, but wouldn't the party of the president be the one that pays that price? In a real way, don't these guys have every incentive in the world to burn the whole place to the ground?

  3. Not sure why one needs to be so technical here. The answer is clearly yes. Why? Because the effort last time lost alot of credibility whatever the other factors. You are, IMHO, right in implying it's an optics issue which means the Republicans need to be even more careful on optics not to anger some of their base. And part of the problem is a long-term cut and an fy 2012 cut aren't the same thing. But this has to bolster the doctrinaire budget cutters, no?

  4. Matt,

    The Republican leadership believes (with good reason) that they will be blamed in the event of something as dramatic as a government shutdown or debt default crisis. Moreover, such an event would likely cost their top donors real money. So at the end of the day, they are bluffing when it comes to actually burning everything down.

    And unfortunately for them, the White House and Senate Democrats know that. It frustrates some people that the White House and Senate Democrats aren't using that knowledge just to take a hard line from the outset, but instead they have chosen to widen the fractures within the Republicans by engaging and then forcing through a deal which the TP-types will find unacceptable.

    I don't see this not working at any point. I suppose I could be wrong, but I really don't think the Republican Leadership is ever going to have the will to thwart their elite donors and their own political calculations.


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