GOP Deadline Management: Dynamite in March, Dud in October

There's a Plan B up there somewhere! |||I've received a fair amount of pushback from commenters here about my contention, which I have repeated during TV appearances, that the Republican Party has squandered what should have been a good hand in extracting conditions to a debt-ceiling increase, in keeping near-term federal spending flat, and in using the Obamacare rollout as a galvanizing moment for reform-and-replace. While I do not think a government shutdown in itself is a horrible thing, and may in fact produce positive side-effects, I think it self-inflicts unnecessary damage to otherwise achievable Republican efforts to constrain government. 

This conclusion rests in part on the sharp contrast between how the House leadership handled a bundle of similar deadlines back in March, and its behavior here in Blocktober.

In mid-January of this year, after having blundered their way to a "fiscal cliff" deal that jacked up taxes without cutting government or dealing with the looming entitlements tidal wave, battered House Republicans faced three more deadlines that seemed destined to further irritate a crisis-fatigued public. These were:

1) Late February/early March: When a new debt-ceiling increased was estimated to be needed.

2) March 1: When the sequestration budget cuts were scheduled to take effect unless negotiated away.

3) March 27: When a new continuing resolution would be required to finance the federal government.

Check it out, I said something nice about John Boehner. Maybe I HAVE gone wobbly. |||Faced with this unpromising hand, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) did something almost shockingly shrewd: He kicked the debt-ceiling deadline down the road to May 18, while attaching to this delay a provision requiring the Senate to finally pass a budget by April 15, something Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) had flagrantly failed to accomplish for more than three years. This had the benefit of spacing out and diffusing the man-made March crises into three distinct events, while putting Democrats on the defensive and creating political pressure to re-introduce some basic adult responsibility to the budgeting process.

As third-ranking House Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) said at the time:

The Senate has never even passed a budget. It is the rule and the law that by April 15 you have to, so what we’re saying is, we will extend the debt limit until the timeline when you have a budget, a roadmap....We think it’s only right that both [chambers] lay out their roadmap to put on a path to a balanced budget. [...]

If individuals cannot pass a budget, why should taxpayers pay their salary?...I mean, that’s the most fundamental thing you do, and how do you ever stop digging yourself in the hole if you don’t pass a budget?

A reasonable-sounding observation.

His wife says she does the best she can. With the appearance, I mean. |||Left to stand on its own, the March 1 sequester took place, marking the first year-over-year cut in military spending in a generation, keeping federal spending flat, and providing what Grover Norquist recently described as tremendous leverage in a possible long-term entitlements deal. (I think Norquist is wrong about that, but he is considerably better informed.)

Then on March 6, the House passed a continuing resolution funding the federal government—at essentially flat levels—for the rest of the fiscal year (through Sept. 30). After some Senate and House tweaking, President Barack Obama signed the CR into law later that month. Two up, two down.

And then lo! The Senate actually passed a budget, on March 23, no less. It was for $3.7 trillion, included tax hikes, and was passed without a single Republican vote, but here you finally had the Democratic Party's values attached to concrete numbers. Two days earlier, the House had passed its own budget without a single Democratic vote, lowering taxes, cutting benefits (especially from Medicare), and costing $3.5 trillion.

Terrible, of course, but also a decent job for just a House majority. |||It's worth pausing to remember how much Republicans managed to accomplish with their flimsy House majority in just two short months. Federal spending for fiscal 2013 was flattened (at around $3.5 trillion) and locked into law. The budget for 2014 was honing in on just $3.6 trillion—an appalling number, to be sure, but also basically flat. Voter-alienating deadline-brinksmanship was mostly tabled, and there were concrete hopes that the irresponsible era of continuing resolutions might finally get dragged in the direction of responsibility. 

When you don't control the Senate or the White House, your possibilities for big policy victories are limited. The GOP House managed, in this comparatively weakened position, to do what unified Republican rule during the George W. Bush era never even contemplated: restraining the growth in government. Which is only a beginning, to be sure, but a decent starting point for making the 2014 elections about starting to finally cut government, with concrete proposals about what goes or shrinks first.

So how on earth did that promising template lead to a government shutdown over not an annual budget, but yet another goddamned continuing resolution?

In part, because the chaotic Republican conference on Capitol Hill failed to heed one of the political lessons from March: That unbundling is your friend.

A stark, Friedlanderesque-style visual metaphor, for unbundling. |||With both a new fiscal year and Obamacare starting on Oct. 1, plus a new debt ceiling deadline penciled in for Oct. 17, Republicans conflated all three, instead of separating them out. The 2014 budget, or post-Sept. 30 continuing resolution, became about the Quixotic mission to defund Obamacare. The shutdown is now morphing into the debt ceiling. Americans may have agreed with the GOP about Obamacare, and really agreed with them about attaching spending cuts to a debt-ceiling increase, but they reject shutting down the government for those ends. Now the headlines are all about the thing voters hate, which will conceivably mute their appetite for insisting on the things they support as part of a big, bundled settlement.

The original tactical sin here, in my view, happened just after those budgetary votes last March. Republicans in both chambers, at the instigation of their Tea Party minority, simply refused to appoint a conference committee to hash out the differences between the $3.5 trillion and $3.7 trillion budgets. Over and over again.

Remember those epic CSPAN battles between Angry Birds and Wacko Birds earlier this year? Many of them were over the issue of appointing budget conferees:

"What are we on my side of the aisle doing?" McCain snapped Tuesday.

"We don't want a budget, unless, we put requirements on the conferees that are absolutely out of line and unprecedented. We are not helping ourselves with the American people at all," he said. [...]

Mike Lee. |||McCain has had remarkable exchanges on the Senate floor this week with several Republican senators who come from the Tea Party wing of the party: Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida. All oppose allowing for a budget conference and McCain has assailed their arguments.

McCain Thursday accused Lee of either not understanding the congressional budget process or of making deliberately misleading comments.

Lee responded by saying that fears Republicans will get drawn into a budget negotiation that will result in a "backroom deal" that violates GOP values.

"We are fully aware that Washington and the establishment in both parties don't like what we're saying," Lee said. "In case no one's noticed, the way Washington works stinks."

The Wacko Birds have been among the few genuinely interesting blocs of politicians to emerge on Capitol Hill in my lifetime. But if there was evidence of a plausible Plan B here, I have yet to see it. After successfully foisting a budgetary process onto an intransigent Senate, the insurgents decided they were just too radical for all that governing stuff.

Visual metaphor, taken from movie I saw for the first time the other day. Hot damn, was that good! |||The federal government right now could be operating with a $3.6 trillion budget, Republicans could be throwing I-told-you-so parties about the Obamacare rollout while popularizing their concrete plans for near-term reform and post-2014 overhaul, and the then-standalone debt-ceiling increase debate could have ended up in a rout, with a public-backed GOP extracting long-term spending concessions from a stubborn but outnumbered president.

Instead of any of that, Americans are focusing on a shutdown they overwhelmingly dislike, which they blame more on Republicans than Democrats. It is extremely difficult to see how prolonging this stalemate will enhance either the GOP's negotiating position today or its electoral prospects a year from now. (That includes the electoral prospects for Liberty Movement types in primary fights.) It would be both ironic and unfortunate if the healthy and long-overdue push to make the Republican Party even a little bit fiscally conservative produced a political result that handcuffs its ability to apply fiscal conservatism on government. As ever, I will be happy to be proven wrong.

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  • ||

    "Grousing Reason readers?" You're biting the hand that snarks you, Matt.

  • Matt Welch||

    It's accurate! Also, as always, I appreciate debate when Good People Disagree. And also [fill-in-the-blank commenter].

  • Paul.||

    OT: What does a progressive city government do when they pass "anti-smoking health laws" which run directly in the face of minorities:

    The city’s retreat from the June 22 operation prompted suspicions that election-year politics were the cause, and that Mayor Mike McGinn didn’t want to alienate minority communities that frequented and owned some hookah lounges.

    So, Mayor McSchwinn, what's it gonna be, you gonna enforce the law you wanted passed, or you gonna look the other way 'cause, women and minorities hardest hit. Oh, it's a progressive's worst nightmare.

    http://seattletimes.com/html/l.....esxml.html

  • Aloysious||

    *grouses indignantly*

  • Dr. Frankenstien||

    Harumph Harumph

  • Jordan||

    HURR DURR COCKTAIL PARTIES

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    And here's Cytotoxic, right on schedule.

  • Cytotoxic||

    And you're being a mindless TEAM ORANGE sophist douche, right on schedule. Which is pretty much always now.

  • Cytotoxic||

    1) Not once is it mentioned that the GOP did attach the condition of a 1-year delay onto the CR. That was plan B. It was pretty reasonable.

    2) Re 'holding OC-related I-told-you-so-parties'. What would this accomplish? Yesterday every major non-Fox news source was shovelling BS about how the OC exchanges were 'overwhelmed with demand'. You think a lack of distraction would matter? I wouldn't be surprised given the rest of the grasping and dishwater-weak analysis in this article.

    3) Meaningless poll(s) aside, I have yet to see any real evidence of great political cost or risk for the GOP.

  • Matt Welch||

    I agree that the 1-year delay request was reasonable. It was also only proposed after spending months trying to defund Obamacare, and more months blocking a conference committee. I think these actions, combined, made the reasonable 1-year delay considerably less likely to be adopted.

  • Cytotoxic||

    I think your posts, combined, show you don't understand negotiation. Really, Welch, couldn't you just write "I don't understand politics or negotiation" instead of this wall of text?

  • Matt Welch||

    In fairness, I did the "continue reading" function after the 2nd paragraph.

  • XM||

    Are you heir to the Welch's juice company?

  • Cytotoxic||

    I read the whole thing.

  • sarcasmic||

    Nice backhanded compliment. You been watching British sitcoms or something, Matt?

  • Paul.||

    "What are we on my side of the aisle doing?" McCain snapped Tuesday.

    Trying to maintain the government status-quo while a few rabblerousers try to do anything they can to shake it up, for better or worse?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Americans may have agreed with the GOP about Obamacare, and really agreed with them about attaching spending cuts to a debt-ceiling increase, but they reject shutting down the government for those ends.

    Ultimately it doesn't matter what voters agree or don't agree with Congress about at this point. In a year the shutdown will be long forgotten but what we're stuck with will not. The shutdown itself is basically politically irrelevant.

  • Paul.||

    McCain Thursday accused Lee of either not understanding the congressional budget process or of making deliberately misleading comments.

    Serious question for the group, is "not understanding the congressional budget process" a liability?

  • Paul.||

    Instead of any of that, Americans are focusing on a shutdown they overwhelmingly dislike, which they blame more on Republicans than Democrats.

    Another serious question, is there a government shutdown scenario that would ever be blamed on Democrats?

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    This is a reasonable article Matt; I appreciate you putting your thought process in writing.

    Where I diverge is that I don't see a shutdown as having a large impact on Republican outcomes in the midterms. The general public dislikes shutdown in the abstract, but my read on shutdowns in contemporary politics is that, for the most part, voters don't care enough to punish those perceived to have "started" it. Republicans seem to have learned from the 1995 shutdown: they are proceeding more cautiously, and one can hope that they will not have a Newt Gingrich on the plane with Clinton moment.

    That being the case, Republicans can afford to be a bit more ambitious: if they lose this particular showdown, they lose nothing of importance and it is a more noticeable show of opposition to ObamaCare than a 42nd vote to repeal would be.

  • Paul.||

    they are proceeding more cautiously, and one can hope that they will not have a Newt Gingrich on the plane with Clinton moment.

    If the media wants the GOP to have that moment, they'll have it.

    Say what you will about Gingrich, he was the victim of one of the greatest coordinated media smears I've ever witnessed.

  • Another David||

    The refusal to do a budget conference is completely incomprehensible to me unless they really wanted a new CR all along, in which case, fuck them even more.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    The Republican "leadership" is composed of incompetent dipshits?

    Hard to argue with.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    As I recall, the monstrosity which is Obamacare became the Law of the Land via some rather, er, dubious procedural maneuvers. The Republicans should have screamed bloody murder and brought everything to a screeching halt right then and there.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    As one of the crazy critical commentators I think that your analysis is off for a number of reasons:

    1) The 2.5% cut in projected spending isn't any kind of win and doesn't matter for shit in the long term. Expecially when compared to the disaster that Obamacare is and will be.

    2) The idea that this shut down is horrible exists no where outside of the beltway bubble. The rest of the country doesn't give a shit one way or another. The push polls claiming otherwise are bullshit.

    3) The idea that this will destroy the republican party or make it impossible for them to ever retake the Senate is pure progressive fantasy. There is literally no historic evidence to support that contention nor logical reason to believe it.

    4) The shutdown will put pressure on the democrats to the extent that it is their constituencies that are negatively impacted. This makes a deal favorable to the republicans more likely as time goes by.

    5) The republican base was becoming disgusted with the inability of the republican house to effect the rollout of Obamacare. There was a real possibility of that disaffection limiting their turn out in 2014. This fight has re energized the base and will most likely help the turnout battle of 14.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    6) The idea that this is cutting into negative coverage of Obamacare's rollout is wishful thinking. The media is going to do everything in their power to sell this pile of shit. Fortunately, it's so bad that they will still ultimately lose, but that will drag out years. The only analogous policy to Obamacare that I can think of is forced bussing in the 1970s which played out over a half dozen election cycles before the elites gave up and admitted defeat.

    Beyond all of that, a lot of the criticism of your writings on this issue are due to your repeating beltway conventional wisdom as established fact and sniping at attempts to stop or slow Obamacare. In politics a losing battle is still worth fighting. And may be lost this round but it would certainly have been lost by rolling over and playing dead.

  • Cytotoxic||

    HUR DUR TEAM RED CRYBABIES /Randian

  • pmains||

    The idea that this shut down is horrible exists no where outside of the beltway bubble. The rest of the country doesn't give a shit one way or another. The push polls claiming otherwise are bullshit.

    Well, history certainly supports that. The GOP lost 8 seats in a "snapback" election after the 1994 wave. And they held their majority.

    The only thing I can see that has changed is that Democrats have worked furiously to delegitimize government shutdowns. By refusing to rubber stamp the demands of the child emperor, the Republicans are not "doing their jobs." It's of a piece with the inane "move on" mantra following the Lewinsky perjury scandal and the current mantra of "obstructionist!"

    This may prove to be a key moment in constitutional history: when Congress' power of the purse was effectively eliminated. It's certainly similar to how other similar changes have been made: by imperceptibly reframing the debate such that nobody remembers how the system works. You set a precedent -- defunding is not allowed -- and then that precedent is slavishly followed thereafter. The system has changed, but nobody knows why.

  • eyeroller||

    Republican efforts to constrain government

    Republicans don't want to constrain government. You'd think 2001-2006 would finally be enough evidence of that.

    But no, of course I just don't get it! THESE Republicans are different! Don't worry about what those last Republicans did. Or the ones before that. Or the ones before that. THESE Republicans really mean it! They really really really mean it!

  • Derick @Teletrade||

    What the lawmakers are failing to understand that this budget logjam will not help the economy anyway. Whether you like Obamacare or not is not the problem. The problem looms large in the near future. What is that? The risk of default. If that happens, there are every chances of the rating of US being downgraded. This will have cataclysmic effect on the economy and the currency. In fact, many analysts in the international community have already started to vouch for Gold Standard instead of Dollar. If US lawmakers want to save their dollar and economy in the near future, this logjam must end.

    Financial Consultant at http://teletrade-dj.gr/

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