Wednesday, September 18, 2013

In Which John Boehner Tells a Little White Lie

So House Republicans are going to (try to) pass a semi-clean CR except for including an ACA defunding mechanism. John Boehner says:
“On every major issue we’ve faced for the past two and a half years, the math has been the same: House Republicans either find a way together to get to 218, or the Democrats who run the rest of Washington essentially get everything they want,” he added, pressing for House GOP unity.
This is, well....not true.

Look: with a normal, healthy party, 218 could be important, as the process of getting to consensus would involve internal compromises and as the various factions agree to work together going forward. That would allow the conference leadership to negotiate on behalf of the party, with everyone understanding that the leadership would cut the best deal possible -- even if what they could not win might not be spread equally around all party groups.

That's not what we have with the House GOP. Instead, we basically have a group that is large enough to prevent any GOP-only measure from passing which makes crazy demands that have zero chance of being achieved in those final negotiations. And most of the rest of the party is terrified of allowing any perceived distance between themselves and the wacko demand group.

But at the same time, everyone knows that sooner or later something will have to pass the House that is also acceptable to the Democrats. And that implies that there will, at some point, be real bargaining, just as there was, for example, on the fiscal cliff. But House Republican absence from the real bargaining isn't related to whether they can first participate in a symbolic Ritual of Conservative Obedience. Basically, Boehner hasn't been involved in bargaining because his conference (reportedly) ordered him to stay out of the bargaining.

That said: I agree with Brian Beutler that the Ritual of Conservative Obedience -- the defund-Obamacare CR vote now scheduled for Friday -- doesn't make the final deal any more difficult, and it's probably a step forward that at least House Republicans have (apparently) agreed on the appropriate ritual.

25 comments:

  1. Help me out here.. how is it a "semi-clean" CR if it includes defunding Obamacare?

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    1. Sorry, trying to write short, didn't mean to be unclear: Semi-clean other than the ACA portion. Leaving out the ACA portion, it would be a semi-clean CR (pending anyone actually seeing a bill). Plus they're tacking on an ACA defunding portion.

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  2. But at the same time, everyone knows that sooner or later something will have to pass the House that is also acceptable to the Democrats.

    You keep saying this, but what if the Democrats fold? What if we're, say, two months into a government shutdown and the GOP isn't suffering the kind of public opinion hit that would force it to reconsider? Why would Republicans want to, or have to, agree to anything the Democrats want? (In their mind, government employees are moochers anyway, they contribute nothing to the economy, so having them sitting at home is a good thing.)

    The whole theory that the House must pass something that Democrats will accept hinges on the idea that a government shutdown (or debt ceiling crisis) will be so politically toxic for the GOP that they will have no choice but give up their hard line in order to get the government working again.

    I see no evidence of that. In the last few years, we've seen the GOP reap a massive electoral windfall from a dishonest and disingenuous campaign against health care reform. We've seen the GOP maintain its iron-clad lock on the House despite budget and debt ceiling shenanigans. In this climate - which, as you note, is a lot different from 1995 - why would any House Republican be afraid of a government shutdown?

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    1. "Something must pass that Democrats at that time will accept" might be a useful phrasing to address Andrew's concern. No matter what public opinion is, nothing can become law without Obama's signature and the votes of Democratic senators. (Leaving aside the truly impossible notion of the Dems sitting on their hands and voting present, then not backing up a veto from Obama).

      You note "what if the Democrats fold?" They could, but that means that whatever has passed is acceptable to them. Not necessarily on policy grounds, but to fold would require voting 'yes' for whatever reason...a reasonable definition of "acceptable," I think, in that Democrats would be voting to accept that outcome.

      I'm not trying to poo-poo the notion that the Democrats will somehow mess this up; I think betting on the Democrats screwing up is a good bet. But, the simple math of it requires that at least some Democrats--with a 99.999% chance of including Obama, who has no election to worry about--to agree to the final outcome.

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    2. Actually, I'm realizing that my response to Andrew only hit on one aspect of his point, and really not the major aspect.

      Perhaps the major thrust of Andrew's point is: "what if the nihilism of the GOP is so strong that they prefer NO government to anything other than their ideal point?"

      While I think that's unlikely more than a month or two in, it's a possibility. And a scary one.

      Personally, I see no solution for that short of a constitutional convention. I'm not being hyperbolic; I can't see how Madisonian democracy survives that kind of party having a near majority. The system requires compromise; if compromise is impossible, we need a different system.

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    3. " We've seen the GOP maintain its iron-clad lock on the House despite budget and debt ceiling shenanigans." But one reason for that is that the budget and debt ceiling shenanigans did *not* in fact lead to a shutdown, and *were* in fact resolved through compromises acceptable to the Democrats. (And anyway, how do you know their hold on the House is "ironclad"? A 234-201 majority is hardly overwhelming, and much larger majorities have been lost in the past. True, in general the party not holding the White House gains seats in midterm elections, but 1998 and 2002 show that this is hardly inevitable.)

      Of course if public opinion is indifferent or blames Obama more than the GOP, things would be different. But I see no reason to believe that will happen. (I don't rely solely on the 1995 experience here or on the polls--it is more relevant that everyone knows that the Democrats are the more pro-government party so it will be harder to blame them for shutting down the government.) People, even in conservative GOP districts, do want services from the government and are frustrated when they can't get them. And there are still enough marginal districts to make GOP leaders worry about 2014.

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    4. Someone will certainly fold, Andrew. The two groups have sufficiently different goals and backers that it is highly likely one group will give in substantially to the other.

      We can ask which backers carry more leverage with each group, and what issues could sway them. That would be contingent on how nasty the Administration chooses to make the shutdown. If they wish to play hardball, they could refrain from sending out soldier's paychecks, defense contract funding, or Grandma's Social Security. It isn't clear to me that the Republicans would hold out for more than a week if those three groups don't get paid. And no, no one would blame the Administration.

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    5. Matt: Yes, I am suggesting that the GOP's nihilism is such that they personally (at least the Tea Party wing) would rather have a long-term federal government shutdown than any sort of compromise with Democrats on the budget.

      The only thing that would prevent them from doing this is objective, concrete electoral pressure. If voters are outraged and blame the GOP for the shutdown, and 2014 polls start looking ominous, then they will obviously reconsider.

      My point is this: I am skeptical that a government shutdown (even a lengthy one) will create that electoral pressure. These members are entrenched. And their constituencies are largely made up of people who (1) believe that government spending hurts the economy, and (2) are willing to blame Obama and Democrats for virtually anything.

      In other words - unlike David T and Anonymous - I'm not certain GOP members will suffer electorally in the event of a protracted shutdown.

      I'm also not certain that Democrats will not suffer from a shutdown. ("no one would blame the Administration"? Ha!) Can't you imagine that, after a few months of shutdown, some moderate Dems start feeling iffy about this whole health care reform business?

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    6. There were plenty of people who hated Clinton, too, and would blame anything on him. (Check out his ratings in early 1995.) That didn't change the fact that the shutdown helped him and hurt the GOP.

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    7. Dems don't have the option of caving in on HCR. Because as soon as they're willing to give THAT up, that signifies they'll give up on EVERYTHING. Medicaid. Food stamps. The EPA. Civil rights enforcement. Social security and Medicare. GOP primary voters will have veto power over everything.

      Furthermore, if making unreasonable demands is shown to work, then within a decade there will be a leftist Tea Party equivalent, and you'll have two sides insisting they'll shut everything down unless the other side gets its way, each operating under the precedent that unreasonable demands work.

      Dems might cave some other way, and its entirely possible that this strategy could be a really good way for conservatives to extract concessions on spending levels. But unless they're feeling iffy about Western Civilization, they can't give substantial concessions on ACA.

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    8. Dems don't have the option of caving in on HCR. Because as soon as they're willing to give THAT up, that signifies they'll give up on EVERYTHING.

      Well if I recall correctly there were a not-insignificant amount of Dems who were not terribly pleased with the results of the ACA sausage-making process and who certainly weren't eager to tout their support for it on the campaign trail.

      It might take only one town hall question - "Mr. Democratic Senator, I've been out of work for three months and my kids are hungry because of the government shutdown.... why can't you just agree to the GOP's demands so I can get back to work again?" - to change the political calculus.

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    9. @Andrew:

      Maybe. However, the best reply seems to be "If we agree to the Republicans, your kids won't be able to see the doctor."

      Probably best to stop there, but Mr. Senator could ramble on: "Then, they'll demand we eliminate SNAP and a whole lot of people who've been out of work for three months will have hungry kids. So not only will we still have hungry kids, folks won't be able to go to the doctor."

      Meanwhile, there will be folks asking Mr. Republican Congressman or Senator why their kids are hungry. Grandma wants to know where her check is. Military contractors want to know where their significantly larger checks are.

      I get your point, that preexisting partisanship and primary-election-focused Republican priorities will somewhat insulate them. However, I disagree about the thickness of the insulation.

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  3. I'm having a hard time seeing the specifics of a deal that eventually gets passed both the House and Senate. I'm assuming Obama and some Democrats are still worried about the deficit (though I hope I'm wrong). So what's left to cut that will satisfy Republicans and get enough Democrats on board? How much more from non-discretionary and defense can they cut? Republicans want to cut SNAP but I don't see Democrats agreeing to that. Obama has floated chained CPI. But I'm not sure that passes the Senate. Anyone have any thoughts?

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  4. Social Security and Medicate check processing are handled by private entities. Historically in previous shutdowns, these companies worked on with the idea they will be made whole when the gov turns the lights back on. This also presupposes that those companies have the financial resources to pay their employees for some period of time without Uncle Sam paying them. Somewhere down the line that breaks, and you will have a lot of very angry AARP members (and their kids who now have to bail grandma out)

    It the GOP loses seniors, how do they survive even short term?

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  5. Social Security and Medicate check processing are handled by private entities. Historically in previous shutdowns, these companies worked on with the idea they will be made whole when the gov turns the lights back on. This also presupposes that those companies have the financial resources to pay their employees for some period of time without Uncle Sam paying them. Somewhere down the line that breaks, and you will have a lot of very angry AARP members (and their kids who now have to bail grandma out)

    It the GOP loses seniors, how do they survive even short term?

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  6. Building on Andrew's point above, what does the research tell us about how a shutdown will play out with public opinion? Isn't this just another thing that will be filtered through the lens of partisan affiliation, with people looking to their preferred partisan-aligned press to determine whom they should blame?

    Sure, maybe there will be a small bloc of low-information "swing voters" who might be more predisposed to turn on the GOP. And I guess a few percentage points could matter in some more competitive districts - but it's not like the Rs from those districts are the ones holding back a potential deal. And also, are pols really that afraid that a small bloc of voters (who may not vote anyway) will blame them on election day for something that happened well over a year ago and on which they are only marginally-informed?

    Could really use some insight from the elections folks here. But I guess Im leaning towards the nihilism caucus having a bit of an edge.

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    1. I would be interested in this too. The whole situation also makes me think of the paradox of GOP radicalization during the election campaign in summer/fall 2012. If I recall correctly (I'm remembering at least some Sargent and Chait columns written about this), some Democratic politicians and some journalists were finding that they would explain what crazy policies the GOP was running on, but then voters would find the policies so crazy that they wouldn't *believe* the Democrats or the journalists. In this way, the GOP could avoid blame or blowback through the very fact of their radicalization.

      Moderate everyday low-information voters weren't willing to really consider the proposition that one party could have lost it, so what GOP irresponsibility really did was make some people begin to suspect some equivalent irresponsibility on the part of Democrats.

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    2. And yet the Republicans did lose the presidential race, the senatorial races, and even the popular vote in the House (and eight seats there) and perception of them as too far right may have played some (admittedly marginal--but margins matter) role in those results. And in any event, one reason people didn't believe Republicans were so extreme was that in fact Republicans had not in fact brought about extreme results. They may have *wanted* to but they had accepted that with the Democrats in control of the Senate and the presidency, it was not practical to do so. If they in fact do so *now* we have a different situation, and the view of Republicans as extremists may gain more credibility with the public.

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    3. It's not hard to believe that someone's ideas or policies are somewhat extreme when they haven't put them into action. I'd say it gets a lot harder to disbelieve Republican extremism when they've actually shut down the government. It's a much more tangible and understandable action than threatening not to raise the debt limit, which is all very wonky and indistinct, particularly when it doesn't happen.

      I'm not saying you're completely wrong (and there will certainly be people delusional enough to think a shutdown is a good thing), but I think once things actually take effect, offices get closed, so on and so forth, it's a lot less likely folks won't notice.

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    4. Of course people will notice an actual government shutdown (way more than, say, the mere threat of surpassing the debt limit).

      The question is: who will they blame?

      David T assumes that voters will blame the GOP if a shutdown takes effect. I just strongly disagree with that.

      The paradox PF discusses rings true, and I don't see any reason why it can't play itself out again. Loyalists on each side will be convinced the other side is to blame; and those low-information voters in the mushy middle (who are suspicious of both parties BUT also skeptical of any claims that one party has gone off the deep end) will just see another partisan squabble where each side is to blame for failing to come to a consensus.

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    5. I'll provide SOME data for the context question here. It's not particularly perfect, but it's easy for me to do.

      Ideological placement of the two parties in the 2012 NES: (1 = extremely lib, 7 = extremely con, 4 = moderate)
      Dems: 2.29 (or, .71 towards liberal)
      Reps: 4.72 (or, .72 towards con)

      That's the same.

      If we break it down by party, D's said:
      D 2.85, R 4.79
      R's said:
      D 1.81, R 5.27
      I's said:
      D 2.27, R 4.73

      In other words: Dems think their party is insufficiently liberal, but the Rs are center-right. Reps think the world is polarized, but that Dems are the worst offenders. Indies see a center-left and a center-right party.

      You can see why many Rs can't go home having voted for anything that Obama signs. 42% of Republicans think the Dems are insane ideologues. (The numbers really aren't all that dissimilar on the D side--a lot of the differences in the means comes from all these Ds that think the GOP is liberal(!))

      Naturally, this is simply just not true. Both parties have moved towards the poles, but the GOP has moved much more than the Dems have...every measure of ideological positions of elected officials confirms this.

      So, from the cheap seats, I would say that it isn't clear that the public would say the GOP is to extreme. Yes, 2013 isn't 2012...but the writing was on the wall then, too.

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  7. This is a great discussion, but imo two germane details haven't been brought up:

    1) In 2012, the Republicans won about 54% of the House seats with 49% of the vote. We talk about who will get blamed for the shutdown; the reality is that some will blame these and some will blame those, the only question is the relative share. To that question, Boehner's 5-point gap between share of House and share of vote means he's playing with House money. Well...not exactly, but I really wanted to make that joke.

    2) Even if the Republicans are blamed, for many members of the GOP caucus, who cares? Its fall of 2013. There's an election right around the corner, but for these guys I'm not talking about the general election, I mean their Tea Party primary.

    If you were a Republican politician in a safe House district with the Tea Party barbarians at your gate, and Boehner implored you to bite the bullet for the good of the country and the party, would you do so? How many grannies have to starve before your slam-dunk November win is in jeopardy? How many Fall 2013 compromises before your primary is hopelessly lost?

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    1. Basically, what may be necessary is for Boehner to waive the Hastert Rule--he has done it before, but he cannot do it this time without first appearing to "give defunding a chance"--which at the very least will involve going to the brink of a shutdown and may mean allowing at least a brief shutdown. Once he does that, a good many Republicans will privately be relieved--they can keep voting for defunding while a Democratic/moderate Republican coalition keeps the government going.

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    2. @David,

      I agree with CSH. It's going to be hard for GOP reps to pass a clean CR without trying the shutdown strategy and showing it doesn't work (if it doesn't). Once they try the strategy, the public outcry (again, if it materializes) may give them the excuse/cover they need to fend off the TP primary challenge.

      I'm not sure--perhaps you agree too, but you're just pointing out that AFTER the failed shutdown, Boehner will still need Dem votes. I agree with that. As for secretly relieved Repubs, I'm not sure when they will be able to rest easy.

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    3. CSH is right that Tea Party Republicans in the House have no reason to be swayed by polls from other regions of the country. Since obstinacy in pursuit of conservative goals is not considered a vice, they might even serve to goad them on.

      I'm interested in the competing interests, however. Protecting the individuals serving on the many military bases in red states could provide a fig leaf for those who want to get back off the cliff. More importantly, moving to a position from which ordinary governmental business can be conducted is probably also desirable to a lot of the business community. So those pressures might be brought to bear in this fight as well.

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